What do your remote team members and a lovesick football player have in common? They may both be guilty of seeing more in online relationships than is actually there.
If you aren't an American sports fan, you may or may not be familiar with the strange story of Manti Te'o and his online girlfriend, who apparently died, then went into hiding from drug dealers, then turned out to be a slightly deranged young man's idea of a hoax, then an internet meme and public punchline.
I'm not going to go into the whole sordid saga here (here's the link to the site that broke the story for those who care) except to say there are some interesting lessons to be learned.
People project what they want to believe on a relationship. Because you don't see the other person your only evidence for their competence, work ethic, their willingness to help the team (and, in fact, their very existence) is what you see on the screen.
This is both good and problematic. For most of us, we assume positive intent until proven otherwise, which works most of the time, but sometimes bites us because we ignore warning signs that people may not be living up to their promises or giving their best effort. On the other hand, it only takes one missed deadline or snippy email to give us all the proof we need that person is incompetent, or a bad teammate. We operate from the evidence at hand, and then we pass that through our own filters.
Online communication has its own measure of time and space. In an article in this month's Psychology Today, relationship columnist Hara Estroff Marano wrote about finding love on the internet, but her point applies to working relationships as well. When communicating virtually, we feel time differently than we do in the "real world", which causes all kinds of stress. "…electronic communication compresses time so that waiting three days for a response feels like something has gone radically off track. [That] only encourages your own anxieties to work overtime," she wrote.
So while a normal human doesn't stress when a phone call or message goes unanswered for a day or two, virtual communication has us sitting by our email inbox stressing when we don't get an instant response. That gap in time can lead us to all kinds of nasty suspicions about the other person and can seriously damage trust in working relationships.
Using only the minimum technology doesn't really give us enough to work on . True communication happens on multiple levels. We need verbal, vocal, visual and (online) textural cues in order to get a real understanding of what someone says. One line in an email or a text isn't really enough, but it can lull us into a false sense of security or make us a paranoid wreck.
If I make a request of you, and you write back a one-word response like "fine", are you confirming your action? Do you mean "it's fine" like no big deal, or "fine" like when my wife suddenly realizes those dishes aren't going to do themselves and she has to dive in and complete the task. They are three very different interpretations of the same word.
I'm not saying virtual and online relationships can't work. I have a number of people I've corresponded and even done work with that I've never met in person. You just have to be smart about it.
So whether you're suspicious of your online lover or convinced your workmates are doing great work when in fact that deadline is barreling down on you, you can't accept virtual relationships at face, or FaceBook, value.