Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 3, Issue 36;   September 3, 2003:

Dispersed Teams and Latent Communications

by

When geography divides a team, conflicts can erupt along the borders. "Us" and "them" becomes a way of seeing the world, and feelings about people at other sites can become hostile. Why does this happen and what can we do about it?

Charlene now regretted bringing in a facilitator. The whole meeting was running off the road, and the people at Diamond Square, conferenced in by telephone, were obviously feeling more alienated than ever.

Puzzle map of the worldJoanne, the facilitator, also sensed the problem. "I have a proposal," she said. "Let's end this meeting now, and resume on Thursday. Since I was here today, on Thursday I'll join the people at Diamond Square, and we'll pick up from there."

Charlene's team is struggling with the effects of latent communications — messages we send and receive outside our awareness. Joanne's suggestion might help. By facilitating from Diamond Square, she helps the people there to feel more included, and she can get to know them better, too. Her presence there will help to create status parity between the two parts of the team.

When a team is geographically split, latent messages abound, and because these messages so often relate to status, they affect everyone's self-esteem. Here are some examples of latent messages, with ideas for dealing with them.

Choice of site
Holding meetings When a team is geographically
split, latent messages
abound. They affect
everyone's self-esteem.
at the home base of the largest sub-team might save travel dollars, but it can be the highest-cost option. The latent message is that the host group is at the top of the hierarchy, which undermines a spirit of collaboration. Instead, give every site a chance to host. Choose meeting sites that elevate groups of low status, or choose neutral sites that make everyone travel.
Choice of terminology
The names of sites can convey latent (or obvious) status messages. For instance, "HQ," "home office," "remote site" and "field office" are especially toxic, because they convey status messages. Instead, describe sites in geographical terms — by building name, street, city, state, or country.
Choice of traveler
When only a few people are involved, as in a small cross-site collaboration, we have a tendency to ask the people from the smaller or lower-status sites to do the traveling. This choice re-enforces the status disparity. Instead, make a regular practice of exchanging team members across sites for visits of at least three days at a time. Track travel, and use it as a leveler of perceived status.
Choice of site for the meeting leader or facilitator
For telephone or videoconferences, the site that has the meeting chair or facilitator has higher status. Rotate the site choice. This might mean inconvenience or increased travel for the leader, but that's the price of peace.

Although some of these suggestions might appear to be costly, cost comparisons are tricky. Your accounting system probably tracks travel pretty well, but it probably doesn't track the cost of team conflict, feuds, or the passive resistance and schedule delays that they generate. When you compare alternatives, be careful to estimate all costs. Go to top Top  Next issue: Shooting Ourselves in the Feet  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

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Choice-supportive bias is a cognitive bias that causes us to evaluate our past choices as more fitting than they actually were. The erroneous judgments it produces can be especially costly to organizations interested in improving decision processes. Available here and by RSS on April 21.
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