Checks and balances in virtual team communications, part 1: The blame game

Checks and balances in virtual team communications, part 1: The blame game

My parental reflex is to say, “I don’t care who started it, but I am going to end it NOW.”

Conflict on teams is inevitable, and should be expected as well as addressed. If you’re an experienced leader, then you know how conflict is a normal working part of team dynamics. If you’re new to the leadership role, then buckle up: the conflict that emerges will be something that surprises you when you least expect it, and having a few “go to” behaviors will help. This post is all about that.

In this first part of a two-part post, the discussion turns to “the blame game” where two or more employees want to identify others’ problems exclusively, and, in some cases, move any suspicion of wrongdoing far away from themselves. We are going to cover how to recognize conflict on a virtual team. The second part, to be published in a few weeks, will be on how to address team conflict.

Ever played the game “Mafia”? At least in the United States, this game is all about accusing others in the group of being the bad guy by keeping from being accused yourself. One of the reasons it is such a popular party game is because it smacks of real life, where making assumptions about others is a great way to shift attention on your behaviors to others’ negative behaviors. The ultimate goal of the game is to appear blameless yourself, while ensuring that others’ accusations never turn in your direction.

At best, accusing others identifies problems that exist in the work team. At worst, blaming others creates a system focused on mistrust and suspicion. 

Imagine this scenario: One of your computer programming employees, Tracy, is complaining about a colleague, Marnie, who works in a very distant location with several hours’ time difference. Their work covers two different processes that work in concert, so both of your employees need to complete their work to develop the final product. Additionally, Tracy’s work is then used by Marnie to make data collection adjustments for a final customer product.

The complaint is basically that Marnie is not doing her job by providing the scrubbed data files that Tracy needs to complete her client work. Instead, she has found that the files she is receiving contain logic and data structure errors, including duplicates and invalid values. To complicate matters further, Tracy and Marnie work at a time difference of 8 hours, effectively separating their workdays.

Upon speaking with Marnie, you find that she is equally as frustrated because the feedback she needs to complete her data analyses is often delayed or postponed, resulting in a rushed or even panicked situation. You may have suspected something like this was happening, but now you have clearer indicators that communication is not flowing the way it should.

So the setup is really about communication, as suggested by Clemons and Kroth (2011) and Lepsinger and DeRosa (2010). Your two employees are not able to communicate with one another effectively, and that is leading to team conflict. As the leader in this scenario, there are plenty of approaches you can take, but here’s one thing you don’t want to do: you don’t want to be the go-between person for their conflict.

The Process

This conflict is based on communication and timing, from what you can tell. Sure, you may find that there are other issues present, but for this example, let’s develop a process that will lead to quick resolution to the immediate workflow/conflict problem.

  1. Facilitate communication. This is not the time for a group meeting, but I would suggest using what you learn for larger department meetings. Facilitating communication means that you speak with both of the parties involved, develop a common time when they can both be on a conference call.
  2. Use video when possible. It is often easy to blame someone who is a disembodied voice on the other end of a speakerphone. A video connection makes it much more personal and will hopefully drive resolution much faster.
  3. Provide an overview of the situation. This step will require you to describe facts as you see them, not feelings or any of the blame indicators that were brought to you initially. Be very clear in stating that this is not about the emotional reasons for the problems, but about the broken business process.
  4. Review the objectives. Next, remind the people on the call of the end results that are required for a successful project. By emphasizing the collaborative nature of the business goal, you can reorient your employees to look beyond their specific role and see the larger set of activities.
  5. Invite your two employees to develop a better process. You will need to moderate this carefully, as you don’t want the accusations to start flying. To be honest, that may happen anyway if personalities and sensibilities collide. However, if everyone can stay focused on the objective(s), then you should be able to guide everyone to a resolution.
  6. Set a follow-up call to check on the process, then repeat as needed. This is critical, because you want to check on how the changes have been implemented as well as any further adjustments that need to occur. I also recommend speaking with each of the employees individually, and then as a team, so you can deal with any emotional responses that emerge from resolving the conflict.

The Results and Conflict Resolution

Addressing conflict using this strategy can provide each of the people involved in the conflict with a voice and an opportunity to fix a broken or damaged process. However, by dealing with the emotions individually, and stressing the objectives and resolutions as a group, you will hopefully be able to avoid many of the inflammatory behaviors behind the “blame game.”

What strategies do you use to resolve conflict and virtual employee miscommunications?
How do you measure your success with conflict resolution approaches?
How do you know when a conflict has been resolved?

Comment with your answers below!

Links

Want to know more about overcoming conflict in a virtual work environment? I can recommend the Managing the Mobile Workforce: Leading, Building, and Sustaining Virtual Teams by David Clemons and Michael Kroth (2011), and Virtual Team Success:  A Practical Guide for Working and Leading from a Distance by Lepsinger and DeRosa (2010). The following affiliate links will allow you to get a copy from Amazon.com. Please note that I do receive a small commission at no cost to you.

      

References

Clemons, D., & Kroth, M. (2011). Managing the mobile workforce: Leading, building, and sustaining virtual teams. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

DeRosa, D. (2010). Virtual team success: A practical guide for working and leading from a distance. Hoboken, NJ: Pfeiffer.

My computer is not my spouse, I swear!

 Why do we let technology take over our lives?

 One of the hardest challenges to overcome as a distance leader is the feeling that you have to be available for work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. A lot of people feel that way, so it’s nothing new, but when you find yourself waking up a 3:00AM and answering emails because you can’t sleep, maybe it’s time to take some action.

When a company gives you a phone and a computer, some people in the company make the mistaken assumption that those devices have the right to invade every moment of your life. To be honest, if you your work and your devices have that much power, it may be time to rethink some of your boundaries.

Don’t think, even for a minute, that I am immune to this kind of insidious takeover of my personal time. I’m not. In my own life, I had an extremely uncomfortable conversation with a previous boss who shout-spoke to me the following words: “Unless you are on vacation, you don’t have time off! I expect you to be available!” While this was a blatant disregard of my boundaries, as well as violating a variety of labor laws, statements like these are made by bosses more than they should be, to both employees and distance leaders alike.

The expectation for distance leaders is out there: always be available for work.

What makes these situations even more horrible is the fact that our employees may need us in a variety of time zones, work environments, and project situations. Whether you are working in the building next door or on another continent, the pressure to be responsive can really be overwhelming.

Here’s another point to consider: your team is watching how you address work-life balance issues. Andresson et al. (2012) found that demonstrating a healthy relationship with work sets the stage for a happier, more productive, and effective team. As a leader, you set the stage for how the rest of the team evaluates their time and effort, and will follow your lead in making decisions about balancing work and personal life. It doesn’t matter whether your team works in a collocated environment or at a distance, either, confirmed by Korzynski (2013) and Morgan et al. (2014).

Before we get into strategies for improving your work-life balance as a distance leader, you need to take a bit of an inventory about your job. Are you in control of your time, or is it dictated by a system or expectations that were set for you? Is there an opportunity to make improvements? Will your work support you if you have an unreasonable boss?

If the answers to these questions lead you to believe that this situation will never change or your time is not your own, then you will have to decide whether or not the job is a good one for you.

However, if you can put some boundaries and processes in place to reclaim or improve the ration of work life to personal life, then here are some ideas that you can consider and implement as a leader. 

The Process

What can you do to build up your distance leader work-life balance? Here are some tips:

  1. Make a plan. The trick with this first tip is to really think through when and how people need you the most. 
  2. Build a system. You’re a smart cookie, and you probably have an idea of the most common questions you get asked regularly. Collaborate with your team to develop a FAQ or a TQA (Team Questions and Answers) document to answer the questions you can anticipate. Go through your emails for the last six months to see if there are some commonalities, and spend some time training your team to check the document (and maybe add to it, too!) first before calling you during off hours.
  3. Build your staff. Is there someone on your team who would be able to cover you as a “first responder” of sorts if you are away? This is great leadership experience, but if you can share the responsibility for handling questions, you can collaborate to come up with unique solutions and team support strategies.
  4. Set boundaries that make sense. Only you can determine what appropriate boundaries should be for your work and personal time. Do you need to block off regular time during the week to work on data-intensive projects? Are there “office hours” that  you can implement as the best time for team members to call you with non-urgent conversations? Are there signals (like “do not disturb” on your IM application) for your team to contact a delegated staff member on your team (see #3 above)? There are lots of ways to do this, but you can try out a few to figure out the best approach for you.
  5. Revisit and communicate the process periodically. This is important, because your particular situation may change over time, making previous decisions obsolete or ineffective. What may work in May may not work in June due to business cycles. Additionally, make sure you communicate with your team regularly about the process you choose.

The Results and Better Work-Life Balance

True story: A friend has a boss who has an aggressive temperament and who prides himself on always being “available.” It’s a chronic problem, in that he doesn’t take any time for breaks during the day. While the job my friend does is stressful enough, there is no consideration given if the team members are at lunch, having dinner with friends, or (seriously, folks) using the bathroom. The boss has created an environment where personal time is not important, and it has led to a toxic work environment. 

I could be preaching to the choir here, or I could be telling a story to indicate you are not alone. If you do not demonstrate a healthy work-life balance, you will be setting your team on a path that could lead to deeper, more systemic problems. Your team chooses their behavior patterns related to healthy work environments from you! 

What strategies do you use to foster a positive work-life balance?
What does a healthy work-life balance look like to you?
How do you know if you are addressing both personal and professional priorities successfully?

Comment with your answers below!

 

Links

Want to know more about being visible in a virtual work environment? I can recommend the following book by David Clemons and Michael Kroth, especially chapters two and five. The following affiliate link will allow you to get a copy from Amazon.com. Please note that I do receive a small commission at no cost to you.

References

Andresson, P., Konradt, U., & Neck, C. P. (2012). The relation between self-leadership
and transformational leadership: Competing models and the moderating role of
virtuality. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 19(1), 68-82.
doi:10.1177/1548051811425047

Korzynski, P. (2013). Online social networks and leadership: Implications of a new
online working environment for leadership. International Journal of Manpower,
34(8), 975-994. doi:10.1108/IJM-07-2013-0173

Morgan, L., Paucar-Caceres, A., & Wright, G. (2014). Leading effective global virtual
teams: The consequences of methods of communication. Systemic Practice &
Action Research, 27, 607-624. doi:10.1007/s11213-014-9315-2

 

Does this webcam make my butt look big? Strategies for distance leader visibility.

Visibility comes in many shapes and sizes. What’s going to fit you?

I once overhead a conversation about me when I was walking behind some colleagues. I had developed a set of resources that were distributed to over 100 different locations and 300 professionals, and were specifically related to some business changes impacting their work.

The two people commented that the changes, while good for the overall business, meant extra work in their roles. Now came the critical part, as I listened while holding my breath. All of us were walking to a large meeting, where I would be presenting the changes.

“Yeah,” one of them said, “and did you see the information that we got from Dr. Wells?”

“I hope he discusses it today in the meeting,” the other replied. “I’m still pretty confused about how we are supposed to make it work.”

And with that one statement, I realized two things:

  1. I had missed the mark with the materials I sent if there was still confusion.
  2. If I didn’t do something soon, the confusion would only grow.

That’s when I hatched a plan to use a variety of technology-moderated communication strategies to get my point across. I had very limited resources, but I did have a computer, a webcam, a phone with an audio recorder, and web conferencing tools. What I didn’t have was time to visit each of the sites to ensure the correct information was being perceived properly.

What would be the best approach?

What I finally settled on was a hybrid of recorded and live interactions. I followed research from Rhoads (2010) and Spencer-Scarr (2010) to create materials that simulated real-time interactions and could be used for several months. Whatever I decided to do, I wanted to be more visible in the organization and encourage people to communicate back to me, regardless of their location or work role.

The Process

First, I spoke with the two people I had heard in the hall to get a better understanding of the confusing points of the communication. I used the time in our conversation to reinforce that their feedback was both valuable and meaningful. In the following week, I also validated what I had learned with other team members who received the communication.

Second, I developed my communication. Instead of focusing on written, static documents, I decided to record a carefully-scripted presentation using the web conferencing tools. That way, I knew the message was correct and the points addressed what I had learned from my colleagues. The recorded presentation ended up being about four minutes long, and because it was not a live presentation, I could practice and make the overall presentation very polished and succinct.

Third, I sent a link to that recording, along with a webinar schedule, so that people could view the recording and then sign up for a Q&A webinar if they still had questions. A number of people signed up for the webinars, which were scheduled at a variety of times and lasted between 10 and 30 minutes. Most of the attendees had quick questions, but the conversation was very helpful to clarify new role expectations.

Fourth, I followed up on any open questions, and reminded people to contact me if they still had questions.

The Results and Increased Visibility

By creating a reusable and reviewable resource, the double-pronged communication approach gave people ways to view the content in a very personable and friendly setting through a recorded video. If there were questions, people could join a webinar, watch one of the webinars that was recorded, or simply send me an email or call me directly.

My boss said that this was one of the smoothest rollouts ever for a business change impacting so many people. Additionally, the use of multiple modes of communication, the process of gathering feedback, and delivering a polished resource helped me increase my organizational visibility.

And I never left my building. Folks, if that isn’t distance leadership, I don’t know what is.

Do you have similar initiatives in your organization?
Do you need to increase your visibility using high-touch communication strategies?
Have you explored your existing technology resources for ways to improve your visibility?

Comment with your answers below!

 

Links

Want to know more about being visible in a virtual work environment? I can recommend the following book by Paul Alexander, especially habits numbers three and four. The following affiliate link will allow you to get a copy from Amazon.com. Please note that I do receive a small commission at no cost to you.

References

Rhoads, M. (2010). Face to face and computer-mediated communication: What does theory tell us and what have we learned so far? Journal of Planning Literature, 25(2), 111-122. doi:10.1177/0885412210382984

 Spencer-Scarr, D. (2010). Unlocking the power of internet collaboration: Adjusting concepts so more people ‘get it’. The International Journal of Technology, Knowledge and Society, 6(2), 1-16. Retrieved from http://ijt.cgpublisher.com/product/pub.42/prod.309

Cultivating Presence as a Distance Leader

How do you create a leadership presence or brand when you are a distance leader?

This question is shared by distance leaders, and virtual workers, around the world, and not easily answered with a few glib, “post your picture on LinkedIn” responses. When you are not physically collocated  with your coworkers, it’s difficult to maintain relationships and influence without intentional effort.

So what should a distance leader do to establish and maintain presence in a virtual leadership role?

First, think about how you are defining yourself as a distance leader, and I recommend four steps to become an invisible presence in discussions related to your expertise:

  1. Define your  leadership presence. This takes some time on your part to define the impression you want to make as a distance leader. Do you want to focus on excellent customer service? Making difficult financial decisions successfully? Providing sales teams with indispensable quoting tools? Whatever it is, defining it will make it easier to build your presence and be the “go to” person for that thing.
  2. Choose specific connections. Not every coworker is an advocate or ally in your organization, so choose your mentors and peers carefully as you develop your presence. Work through those people to influence others in a way that is beneficial to both them and you. For me personally, I always try to emphasize the other person’s needs before mine… while still thinking through ways to achieve my own goals.
  3. Cultivate your image. Nobody ever made a positive impression by being absent, so try to work through your supervisor(s), colleagues, and mentors to reinforce your leadership presence in new groups when possible and appropriate.
  4. Practice patience. None of these steps are quickly accomplished, as being the right person for specific resources takes time to publicize and then demonstrate expertise. However, if you are persistent and actually deliver on your expertise, you will be able to develop the influence and presence you may want.

Penny Pullan, the author of Virtual Leadership: Practical Strategies for Getting the Best Out of Virtual Work and Virtual Teams, suggests cultivating your virtual identity, and does an excellent job of discussing both the tangible and intangible components of a person’s leadership identity.

In my role as a distance leader, I have both used and violated the rules above, to varying degrees of both success and failure. I found that when I decided to create a reputation on “adopting the urgency expressed by my customer,” I was able to build the trust of my colleagues, but it sometimes created undue stress if I wasn’t clear on their priorities. In this case, my customers were sales team members in my own organization.

After working successfully with the leadership team one group, I actually heard those words back when a district manager said, “you always seem to understand how tight some of our deadlines are!” I couldn’t have asked for a better compliment.

Even more importantly, that manager told her peers how valuable, and timely, our work was to her success.

There can be negative consequences when you choose your reputation, too. In another situation, a team member blatantly lied when she realized that I was trying to work to her timeline. While I can’t assume that she was being personally malicious, I realized that she was not being honest pretty quickly. Her project was one of several that I was developing, and there was no way to meet her unreasonable deadline. Instead of getting panicked, I called her directly and let her know.

That led to adopting another reputation characteristic: “Communicate honest expectations as promptly as possible.” Since I have already demonstrated a strong interest in meeting my colleagues’ timelines, the few times when I delivered messages that work would be delayed have been received with consideration. It’s sort of a two-step process, but being intentional about my reputation was the key to being respected at my role.

Want to know more about developing your presence as a distance leader? I can recommend this book by Penny Pullan, specifically Chapter 2, and the following affiliate link will allow you to get a copy from Amazon.com. Please note that I do receive a small commission at no cost to you.

 

0106-Selective virtualization: criteria for virtual work

0106-Selective virtualization: criteria for virtual work

0106-Selective virtualization: criteria for virtual work

 
 
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This week on the DistanceLeader podcast, we’re going to take a look at developing effective criteria for distance work as both a leader and for your team. Being a good distance leader means the development of good expectations that you can share with your employees and peers about who can work from a distance and why that makes business sense. What kind of work prompts distance environments? The answer usually falls into two categories:
  1. Any situation where geography or time are not as important to accomplish the task
  2. When geography or time is critically important to accomplish the task
What does that mean in reality, though? When Geography and Time ARE NOT as important In work situations where employees don’t need to physically interact with one another, or when the team needs to be able to span time zones or work shifts, distance working (and leadership) is a potential approach for getting work accomplished. Some examples might be work environments where employees are on-call, where relative quiet or a meditative approach is needed, or where all interaction can be accomplished through distance work tools, like teleconferencing. Help desk support personnel, perhaps literally “on call,” may not need to work in a specific work environment, for example. Another role might be writers, artists, creative developers, programmers, or data management personnel, where the technology is more critical than the personal interaction. When Geography and Time ARE more important In the case of consultants, sales people, or deployment teams, the entire business opportunity may be around the needs of the customer(s). While the management may be at central office, employees may be working at a client site or traveling among client sites. Home care nurses, for example, fit this category because to do the job, the nurses must travel from location to location. Sales teams are often distance teams, because meeting with the client may require on-site meetings and interactions. Other distance working considerations The work requirements are only one dimension of planning for a virtual work team. Other reasons for pursuing a distance work environment include a wide variety of characteristics:
  • The personnel components of doing the work. Do you have employees with physical impairments? Unique skills that are not available with other in-office staff (such as a native language translator or specialized technician)? Periodic personnel requirements related to seasonal work?
  • The company may also be the reason for distance work environments, such as a reduction of the physical office facility, dispersion of a workforce group to satellite offices, or even an emerging distance working policy.
  • The industry may also be one that includes virtual work characteristics. For example, consider military base dispersion around the world and all of the services that support the surrounding communities. If you work in an industry with 24x7 support requirements like e-commerce, you may also need virtual work environments to address customer needs at any time.
That’s really only the beginning of the discussion around virtualizing the work environment. As a leader, developing the business reasons and unique cases where distance working makes sense for your team is as unique as your team can be. Helping set the expectations for both your team and your leaders may require you to consider the existing expectations around distance workers, how HR works for distance employees, changes in productivity for virtual teams, and clearly evaluate and define the business reasons that make sense in your organization. Finally, we discuss the communication tools in place to support dispersed teams. As a leader, a primary role is to model and demonstrate the effective use of communication tools, and choose to meet in person when it makes sense. Employee evaluations should also be carefully considered to avoid biases for employees in the office or collocated with you. There may also be cultural considerations of dispersing a work team, perhaps because employees feel like they are losing “importance” because they are no longer reporting to an office.

0105 – Preparing for Distance Leading and Teaming

0105 – Preparing for Distance Leading and Teaming

 
 
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This week on the DistanceLeader podcast, we’re going to take a look at testing out distance working opportunities, along with potential distance working pitfalls and how to avoid them.

We start with the research identifying some of the distance working pitfalls, and then focus the rest of the show on different strategies for being as effective as a distance leader. Some of the topics include different communication and facilitation strategies, the exploration of collocation practices when necessary, and identifying the leadership stress points when things aren’t going as expected.

0103 – Bookshelf: W. Warner Burke’s Organizational Change: Theory and Practice, 3ed

0103 – Bookshelf: W. Warner Burke’s Organizational Change: Theory and Practice, 3ed

 
 
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Organizations are always in a state of change, and Dr. Warner Burke’s classic text on organizational change does much more than just cover the basics. Instead, in this well-researched text, Dr. Burke’s comprehensive review of existing organizational change theories and the Burke-Litwin causal model of organizational performance and change provide an outstanding comprehensive exploration of how to examine and contribute to organizational change.

In this podcast episode, we look more closely at the drivers of organizational change, and how they might be useful tools for effective leadership.

0102 – Preparing a Team for Distance Working

0102 – Preparing a Team for Distance Working

 
 
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This week on the DistanceLeader podcast, we’re going to take a look at strategies for preparing a team for distance working.

By examining the pros and cons of both collocated and distance working, as well as exploring different types of virtual working strategies, our conversation leads to some of the stressors that are unique to distance working employees. Whether developing trust, communication strategies, or expectation agreements, the resources discussed in this episode can be applied to any leadership environment.

0101-Virtual Workers need Virtual Leaders

0101-Virtual Workers need Virtual Leaders

 
 
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Virtual working comes with a wide variety of challenges, and workers need a connected leader who understands the complexities of collaborating across distance and time zones. In this episode, specific strategies for connecting with virtual employees are presented, along with ideas for developing improved leadership competencies.

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