4 Rules to Avoid the Game of Telephone When Leading a Virtual Team

The worst thing about working in a virtual environment is having your original message get completely misconstrued through ineffective communication channels.

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By Jeff Boss


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In kindergarten, there was the game of telephone -- which may have happened in high school for some. A message was sent from the leader and shared quietly from one person to another with the goal that the last message received equaled the initial message sent. But what typically happened? The message sent was never, ever the message received.

Related: 4 Effective Ways to Manage a Remote Team

Now, apply this concept to the organization, where 5-year-olds aren't running the show (although this is certainly debatable), but communication is lagging nonetheless. Moreover, the same exact problem arises -- a leader sends out a message to a select few, each person interprets it based on personal experience, their value and belief system and professional agenda -- and confusion proliferates like the plague. The worst part is, once that plague is unleashed, it becomes very difficult to contain.

In today's day and age, where virtual teams and multiple time zones are the norm, it's absolutely critical to ensure that the message sent is the message received. Otherwise -- and especially in a startup -- you waste valuable time, money and human capital in recovering the damages caused by simple lapses in communication.

Don't fall prey to the kindergarten challenge. Ensure communicative success by adhering to these four rules.

1. Meet face to face as early as possible.

Even if this means doing so virtually, seeing people's faces not only adds a human dimension to the name on the roster, but also releases the brain's feel-good chemical -- oxytocin. Researchers from Beijing Normal University conducted a study that revealed two ways in which face-to-face communication differs from other forms of communication:

  • Greater integration of multimodal sensory information. This is nerd-speak for using more of the senses, such as sight, smell, hearing and nonverbal body language.
  • More continuous turn-taking between members. In other words, members are more likely to chime in to a discussion in-person rather than over the phone.

Related: 6 Leadership Practices to Strengthen Virtual Team Cohesion

2. Establish virtual rules.

Unpredictability can be about as comfortable as the fear of the unknown because, well, that's exactly what it is. Establish rules for communication, such as the mode by which you exchange dialogue, expectations around responsiveness and the amount of space to allocate members.

3. Create a communication cadence.

It's much more convenient to communicate with your team when everyone is co-located. However, when you're geographically dispersed, it's easy to forget to pass the word because people are "out of sight, out of mind," thus inciting quick catch-up meetings that are anything but expeditious.

To minimize the tendency for urgent meetings to arise out of nowhere (and always at the most inopportune times), set a meeting agenda along with expectations that recurs weekly. Be sure to include the purpose of the meeting in addition to its scheduled content. In other words, is the purpose of the meeting to inform others, to make a decision, or to propose a project for execution? Don't let it be one of those all-in-one meetings that tries to tackle every issue at once -- they rarely prove productive.

4. Celebrate wins.

While you can't exactly high-five or pat a team member on the back from afar, you can send congratulatory praise that everyone notices. Make sure the team knows how well it's doing given the circumstances by sharing worthwhile individual and collective efforts.

Here's the bottom line. While communicating virtually is much more cost effective and convenient, there's just no substitute to building team cohesion, relationships and mutual commitment than meeting in person.

Related: How to Keep Your Remote Workers Connected

Jeff Boss

Leadership Team Coach, Author, Speaker

Jeff Boss is the author of two books, team leadership coach and former 13-year Navy SEAL where his top awards included four Bronze Stars with valor and two Purple Hearts. Visit him online at www.jeff-boss.com

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