The context of US political and policy communications has undergone a seismic shift with President Donald Trump’s frequent use of Twitter. Can business leaders rely on electronic and social media as a primary mechanism for seeding the ideas that build effective teams and cultures?
Laura was recently appointed to a high-profile role with international responsibility and a diverse group of employees geographically dispersed around the globe. It’s a dream job, one in which Laura can apply her considerable experience to make a huge impact on her company’s success by serving customers and generating repeat business. But the stakes for Laura and her team are high. They need to reverse a three-quarters-long downward trend in sales and address growing customer attrition.
After taking the new position, Laura realized that she’d inherited a group that had rarely met in person and had not gelled as a team. Some of the leaders working for her had never even been in the same room together, relying instead solely on electronic communications. Therefore, Laura’s first leadership decision was to conduct an in-person strategy and team building session, which would bring all of her team’s key decision makers together for the first time.
Unfortunately, just weeks after her appointment, Laura’s company instituted travel restrictions in an effort to cut costs. When we met to plan the team session, the meeting appeared to be in jeopardy.
“I’ve gotten 8 calls today alone from employees asking me if the meeting is still on,” she told me. “I know I’m taking a risk, but this session is critical to our success, so I’m moving forward with it. With the tough goals we have ahead this quarter and next, I need these folks to look each other in the eye and commit to achieve them.”
“I can’t lead by tweet.”
Like most good leaders I know, Laura understands the difference between communication and conversation. Today’s social media and electronic technology offers leaders a great way to share information or give directives, but rarely are they an adequate replacement for the activities that build real relationships and establish the foundation required for a strong team culture. For that, you need conversation, and a forum for the intimacy of idea exploration and exchange.
Research shows that most human communication occurs in the non-verbal form, which cannot be gleaned through text or tweet. And, despite our access to sophisticated technology, emojis are not replacements for visually reading facial expressions, anymore than 140 characters constitutes a robust conversation.
With the extreme reliance that most organizations place on electronic forms of communication, it’s important for leaders to be aware of its limitations and take extra precautions to assure that they are communicating directly and unambiguously as much as possible. Here are some important communication considerations:
You’re not working with every available tool
The use of email, texting, intranets and other forms of electronic communication offers access to only some of the available forms of human communication. The risk of others misinterpreting your message or gaining an incomplete understanding of it is huge, so careful crafting of verbal and written communications is essential. It’s important to know what you want the ‘take home’ message to be and what impressions you want to avoid.
Therefore, the ability to critically think, write and verbally communicate now has equal value to the technical competencies that are required for success in your functional area.
Sleep on it
It’s tempting to quickly dash off an email or post something on your company website, but taking time to carefully review it and having a few other people examine important communications before they’re sent is essential. I once had an editor who insisted on reading important articles that she planned to post after thinking about them overnight. She often made corrections that improved the final product after having a chance to sleep on it.
As a general rule, the more you feel a communication is urgent, the more important it is to carefully review it. If you don’t have time to "sleep on it," at least employ the 15-minute rule: Wait 15 minutes after composing any communication and re-read it before posting or sending. Think about the message from the receiver’s perspective, which will give you a sense of the impact of the message. That may be very different from your intent.
Know the color of their eyes
Many leaders rely on technology to reduce the cost of doing business, which allows for the creation of global teams. However, it’s important to budget for periodic in-person meetings to maintain a strong team culture. At the very least, well-designed video collaboration activities is a must if you truly want to foster healthy communications across your team and cement peer-to-peer working relationships.
Find ways to develop personal connections
One of the most frequent complaints that I hear from clients whose teams are virtual is how hard it is to establish the kind of personal connection that you might otherwise experience with someone who is working in the same office. With team calls, for example, individuals will log or dial in at the appointed time, and business will be discussed. But once that’s completed, everyone goes back to his or her own job in regions around the world. There’s no easy way to drop by a co-worker’s cubicle for a chat if they’re in London and you’re in Los Angeles.
One leader I know devised an interesting approach to the problem of geography when working to build his team. Each Friday, he holds a "social hour" conference call, during which 15 minutes are devoted to resolving any lingering business issues from the week, and 45 minutes are dedicated to discussing a pre-assigned topic. One week, for example, the team discussed their favorite films and the personal insights they gained from them. Another week, team members discussed a book they’d read, and what they’d learned from it.
The leader feels that the process has resulted in better team collaboration around work related issues, a greater understanding of the diverse backgrounds represented on the team and deeper personal relationships among co-workers.
Generational differences can and do affect communications
With five generations in today’s workforce, it should come as no surprise that the generations differ in their communication styles and preferences. However, particular attention should be given to millennials, who represent the largest share of the American labor force, according to the Pew Research Center. Because they are often tech-savvy and drawn to electronic forms of communication, leaders may actually need to encourage millennials to devote more time to in-person communication. For this cohort, texting is more socially acceptable than conversing in person.
While millennials may be an easier generation for leaders to reach via technology because of their reliance on it, they may also be the group most likely to overlook the importance of nonverbal communication. As a result, they’re more susceptible to missing important cues and insights that could be gained by walking down the hall to a colleague’s office to chat rather than sending them a message through email.
Technology offers an abundance of valuable new tools for collaboration, but they should not be mistaken as a substitute for the in-depth interactions necessary for effective leadership.
Alaina Love is chief operating officer and president of Purpose Linked Consulting and co-author of “The Purpose Linked Organization: How Passionate Leaders Inspire Winning Teams and Great Results” (McGraw-Hill). She is a recovering HR executive, a global speaker and leadership expert, and passionate about everything having to do with, well … passion. Her passion archetypes are Builder, Transformer and Healer. You can learn more about how to grow leaders, build passionate teams and leverage passion to create great customer outcomes here.
When she’s not working with her Fortune 500 client base, Love is busy writing her next book, “Passionality, The Art and Science of Finding Your Passion and Living Your Bliss,” which explores the alignment of personality, purpose and passion, and the science of how it contributes to our well being. Follow Love on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or her blog.