The number of virtual teams will continue to rise dramatically over the next few years, and with that rise, social collaboration tools will become more and more frequent in the workplace. Because these tools are designed to look and feel like social networks, we must be careful to avoid a major pitfall of text communication -- a phenomenon I call “Social Road Rage."
If you’ve ever argued politics on Facebook or watched others do it, you’ve probably seen this first hand. Anger spikes, misunderstandings flare up and the level of emotion in the conversation begins to escalate very quickly. In our personal lives this can hurt friendships and cause awkward family dinners. When it happens between colleagues, it negatively impacts work and company culture.
My belief is that the lack of intonation and body language makes it easy to misinterpret text communication and launch into a defensive mode with guns blazing --just like the tendency to believe the guy who cut us off in the parking lot is definitely a jerk instead of a well-intentioned person who simply didn't see our car.
Often, we shout first and ask questions later. With that in mind, I’ve developed some strategies for communicating and especially delivering feedback online.
1. Choose your channel.
If you’re going to be questioning someone’s decisions or aptitude, make sure you’re using the right forum. Calling someone out in a threaded discussion visible to the whole team can come off as an attempt to embarrass or belittle them. If you feel your feedback is pointed enough to garner outside attention, consider delivering it through a private channel.
2. Put your criticism in proper context.
People tend to project meaning onto what they read, so resist being terse and give yourself some padding. Instead of only listing faults you find with the item in question, include what you like about it too. The "feedback sandwich" technique, where you wrap criticism within compliments is a bit of a cliché in business, but it does help avoid miscommunication in online comments.
One night, a little before bed, I wrote a few comments on a document a team member was preparing for me. Since it was late, I marked it up quickly with notes requesting changes. I found out the next morning my colleague saw the notes before bed and had trouble sleeping, thinking I was upset with the quality of the work.
It's important to remember that the person on the receiving end of your comments doesn't know the circumstances under which you are writing them. You may be trying to quickly knock off a few items before calling it a night. They may think you had to deliberately work late because you were so concerned about the direction of the work. You can avoid a lot of stress and miscommunication with your team by always including the proper context for your comments. It's a few extra minutes of investment that are well worth the effort.
3. Avoid projecting emotions onto a message.
On the other hand, the worker in the example above saw my simple notes and interpreted an emotion I wasn’t trying to convey. We all take pride in our work and ideas, so when someone criticizes them, we're inclined to take it personally.
Escalation happens when we project extra emotion into a message we've read. Instead, always try to assume positive intent and take feedback at face value. Not all suggestions for improvement are meant to cut you down.
4. Hash it out on a call or, better yet, in person.
If you do see something that upsets you in online communication, don't fire back with a response -- fire back with a calendar invitation. By speaking with someone in person or on a voice call, you can ask for context or clarity and also understand the intent behind the message.
I also find that if you're really upset, scheduling a meeting gives you a period of cool-down time to approach the conversation a little more rationally. Sometimes sleeping on it will even make you forget all about it.
If you’re a leader of a virtual team or a founder, it’s important to set the tone for how your teams communicate so that you can create a positive culture that scales with your business. Social Road Rage is also a physically upsetting experience that can ruin your day, and hurt your ability to focus on the task at hand.