Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 10, Issue 21;   May 26, 2010: Communication Traps for Virtual Teams: I

Communication Traps for Virtual Teams: I

by

Last updated: July 18, 2019

Virtual teams encounter difficulties that rarely confront face-to-face teams. What special challenges do they face, and what can we do about them?
Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud and an early pioneer in the field of Public Relations

Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud and an early pioneer in the field of Public Relations. He has been called the "father of spin." Born in 1891, the photo was taken when he was about 30 years old. In his 1928 book, Propaganda, he argues that the survival of democratic societies depends on successfully manipulating public opinion.

Something similar might be true of large-scale efforts within companies. However, just as manipulation can be executed for good or for ill in societies, so can it be within organizations. Because most organizations are smaller than nations, using spin inside organizations could expose them to enhanced survival risks.

Virtual teams can face a variety of disadvantages. Some are familiar: they might be geographically dispersed, their members might speak different languages, and they might observe a mixture of holidays.

Among the most daunting challenges is the interplay between communication and politics. Here is Part I of a set of common communication traps that relate to politics in virtual teams and organizations.

Information hoarding
Information hoarding is keeping to oneself, or to a close group of allies, any information deemed valuable with respect to the work in progress, the processes in use, or group politics. Example: withholding from a rival important information about volunteering for a desirable task. Another example: a department head withholding from an out-of-favor subordinate procedural changes for proposing new projects.
In co-located organizations, word travels more quickly and easily than it does in virtual organizations. Information hoarding might be practiced in both organizational structures, but it's far more effective in virtual organizations.
Team leads can control information hoarding by monitoring communications and by increasing face-to-face contact. Team members can increase their own situational awareness by building and maintaining close, trusting relationships with other team members, wherever they're located.
Enhanced effectiveness of "spin"
The term spin denotes the practice of shading the truth when describing a condition, result, action, or person. For example, when a particular activity has failed utterly, we might report, "It isn't working yet." Spin-based descriptions are usually literally true, while concealing something important, usually to mislead the listener.
In co-located organizations, truth propagates rapidly enough to enable most of the population to detect spin.
When truth propagates from person to person, it tends to mutate more slowly than spin does. That's one way team leads and team members can detect spin — by comparing the information they get from multiple sources via multiple paths.
Lack of a transcript
Many communications Team leads can control
information hoarding by
monitoring communications
and by increasing
face-to-face contact
within virtual teams take place in media that lack permanent records of message traffic. Even in email, finding exactly what someone said can be difficult. Lack of transcripts enables those so inclined to remember things the way they wish they had occurred, or to blatantly manufacture history.
Although this occurs in most teams, virtual teams are more likely than co-located teams to be misled, because fewer people remember the truth. There are fewer people who recall the truth because the body of available witnesses is dispersed. They don't know what happened, because they weren't there.
In controversy, or when controversy looms, keep a journal of what's said — when, where, and by whom. Do your best to create a transcript. It won't be serviceable as evidence, but it might be useful for refreshing your own memory, and for generating questions and observations that will help in group discussions.

Next time, we'll examine the vulnerability of virtual teams to two more methods for misrepresenting facts and the views of others.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Communication Traps for Virtual Teams: II  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Politics:

Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court Stephen G. BreyerWhen You're the Least of the Best: I
The path to the pinnacle of many professions leads through an initiate or intern stage in which the new professional plays a role designed to facilitate learning, especially from those more experienced. For some, this role is frustrating and difficult. Comfort in the role makes learning its lessons easier.
Linda Tripp, a central figure in the impeachment of President ClintonPumpers
In workplace politics, some people always seem to be seeking information about others, but they give very little in return. They're pumpers. What can you do to deal with pumpers?
Rofecoxib, the active ingredient of VioxxBefore You Blow the Whistle: I
When organizations know that they've done something they shouldn't have, or they haven't done something they should have, they often try to conceal the bad news. When dealing with whistleblowers, they can be especially ruthless.
Todd Park, United States Chief Technology OfficerProjects as Proxy Targets: II
Most projects have both supporters and detractors. When a project has been approved and execution begins, some detractors don't give up. Here's Part II of a catalog of tactics detractors use to sow chaos.
Donald Trump, a candidate for the nomination of the Republican Party for President in 2016Allocating Airtime: I
The problem of people who dominate meetings is so serious that we've even devised processes intended to more fairly allocate speaking time. What's happening here?

See also Workplace Politics, Project Management and Virtual and Global Teams for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

An abandoned railwayComing August 21: Perfectionism and Avoidance
Avoiding tasks we regard as unpleasant, boring, or intimidating is a pattern known as procrastination. Perfectionism is another pattern. The interplay between the two makes intervention a bit tricky. Available here and by RSS on August 21.
A dog playing catch with a discAnd on August 28: Playing at Work
Eight hours a day — usually more — of meetings, phone calls, reading and writing email and text messages, briefing others or being briefed, is enough to drive anyone around the bend. To re-energize, to clarify one's perspective, and to restore creative capacity, play is essential. Play at work, I mean. Available here and by RSS on August 28.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Leadership
On 14The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Leadership December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. But to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. We'll use the history of this event to explore lessons in leadership and its application to organizational efforts. A fascinating and refreshing look at leadership from the vantage point of history. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
Please donate!The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!

Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics!
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
My free weekly email newsletter gives concrete tips and suggestions for dealing with the challenging but everyday situations we all face.
A Tip A DayA Tip a Day arrives by email, or by RSS Feed, each business day. It's 20 to 30 words at most, and gives you a new perspective on the hassles and rewards of work life. Most tips also contain links to related articles. Free!
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.