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

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? rbrendPtoGuFOkTSMQOzxner@ChacEgGqaylUnkmwIkkwoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

This article in its entirety was written by a 
          human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.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.

This article in its entirety was written by a human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.

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:

Comparison of energy consumption of compact fluorescent bulbs with incandescent bulbsWhat Insubordinate Nonsubordinates Want: II
When you're responsible for an organizational function, and someone not reporting to you won't recognize your authority, or doesn't comply with policies you rightfully established, you have a hard time carrying out your responsibilities. Why does this happen?
The Dalles of the St. Croix RiverThe Politics of the Critical Path: II
The Critical Path of a project is the sequence of dependent tasks that determine the earliest completion date of the effort. We don't usually consider tasks that are already complete, but they, too, can experience the unique politics of the critical path.
An investigator from the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations interviews a witnessWhen the Answer Isn't the Point: I
When we ask each other questions, the answers aren't always what we seek. Sometimes the behavior of the respondent is what matters. Here are some techniques questioners use when the answer to the question wasn't the point of asking.
Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, James ComeyUnanswerable Questions
Some questions are beyond our power to answer, but many of us try anyway. What are some of these unanswerable questions and how can we respond?
One human being comforting anotherExhibitionism and Conversational Narcissism at Work: II
Exhibitionism is one of four themes of conversational narcissism. Here are six patterns of behavior that are exhibitionistic in the sense that they're intended not to advance the conversation, but rather to call the attention of others to the abuser.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Old books, the standard symbol of knowledgeComing April 17: How to Answer When You Don't Know How to Answer
People engaged in knowledge work must often respond to questions that test the limits of their knowledge, or the limits of everyone's knowledge. Responding effectively to such questions advances us all. Available here and by RSS on April 17.
Three gears in a configuration that's inherently locked upAnd on April 24: Antipatterns for Time-Constrained Communication: 1
Knowing how to recognize just a few patterns that can lead to miscommunication can be helpful in reducing the incidence of problems. Here is Part 1 of a collection of communication antipatterns that arise in technical communication under time pressure. Available here and by RSS on April 24.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrendPtoGuFOkTSMQOzxner@ChacEgGqaylUnkmwIkkwoCanyon.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 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at X, or share a post 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.