Managing virtual team dynamics
Updated: Sep 7, 2020
“We have a hard time generating energy in our virtual meetings.”
This statement came up in a coaching session I was holding and it resonated with similar stories I have heard from other managers I have been working with in recent months. I will approach the solution to this problem by addressing something that readers who have worked with me in management team development will undoubtedly recognise. Among the first things I do when I start working with a team, is to discuss their hopes and fears, and establish norms for our cooperation. Typically, a suggestion is made that one of these norms ought to be that team members should speak their minds.
And typically, everyone agrees, because members understand that there can be no development if colleagues are not honest and open with each other. What I rarely hear anyone suggest, however, is that the team should actively strive to encourage individuals when they speak up. If you just stop for a second with me and consider these two suggestions you may reflect on the point that though they are aimed at the same target, they originate from two very different places. The difference is more than purely academic.
When we try to make sense of what is going on, we tend to be person-centered. We observe someone doing something, or refraining from doing something, and we attribute the explanation as to why, to an intrinsical reason, belonging to them. If John is being quiet in the team, it must be because something is up with him. We might conclude that he lacks the courage to voice his opinion. Keeping this thought in mind, let us consider the scenario of an entire team that is totally silent. Should we conclude that everyone in the team is too timid to speak up?
The alternative to being person-centered is to be system-centered and apply the principles of force field analysis instead. In our scenario it means shifting the focus from individuals’ potential lack of courage, and focusing instead on what possible restraints exist in the team dynamic that could hinder group members from being open and honest. I have never once encouraged a reticent team member to summon up their courage. Rather, when a person says something and is met by complete silence, I ask them how it feels. The answer often involves embarrassment and confusion. I follow up by asking the person whether this feeling of embarrassment increases or decreases the probability that they will continue to speak out. Then I turn to the whole team and ask if this is the kind of climate they really want. This intervention on its own can make a big difference.
Even getting a productive team conversation going in a physical meeting can be difficult sometimes, especially if we need to talk about potentially contentious issues. From the training I have had in system-centered practise I have borrowed the following statement: Whatever you say, the team must take responsibility for. Whatever you do not say, you must take responsibility for. In a physical context I sometimes jokingly say that there is no law against nodding and smiling at the speaker. But given that body language and facial expressions become more difficult to perceive in a virtual context, verbal statements such as: “good that you raised that question”, “I agree”, “I’ve had the same thoughts”, and “please elaborate” become increasingly important.
If you think there is potential for development in your virtual meetings, why not ask your colleagues to read this text and discuss how your team can take greater responsibility for what individuals say? You can then translate your conclusions into norms for the team. The icing on the cake is that you then occasionally stop during your meetings and reflect on how much individuals are being encouraged when they speak up. In doing so, you increase the chances of not only generating but sustaining energy in your virtual meetings.
PS. If you want more inspiration on virtual team dynamics, here is another suggestion that will make a huge difference.
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