Don't use technology as an excuse for bad management

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2017

In a big international company I've been working with recently, I've come across some project team leaders who get exceptional results in a virtual environment and others who are really struggling to deliver. While they have different functions and personalities, they all have the same tools at their disposal. So that's phones, email, access to webinar tools or maybe something like Slack or one of the many other collaboration platforms out there.

The difference is the approach they take to those tools. Some throw their hands up and bemoan the lack of "human contact". Others realize that the same technology can create real human interaction.

This real-world example reminds us why some teams succeed in a remote environment while others don't. It's not the tools, it's how (or how well, or even if) they are used to achieve the desired goals. Actually, it's more than that: it goes back to motivation and intent.

Let's take a really common example. If you are the kind of manager who is uncomfortable delivering bad news, it becomes very tempting to fire it off in an email . You don't have to look anyone in the eye or listen to the complaints. It's clean (for you, at any rate). It's fast. And ultimately, it's damaging to team dynamics. OK, so it can be impossible to get everyone together in a conference room, which we all know is probably the ideal way to address the situation, but there are alternatives. But you chose to take the easy way out. The tool works fine. The decision to use it was less than optimal.

Effective leadership is all about communication. And that's a constant balance between richness (the number of ways we can transmit and receive communication in a given exchange) and scope (getting the message out to the most people in the most expeditious way). When you choose appropriately, you can communicate effectively even across distance. When you choose not to use a tool out of haste, or "because it is hard to use", or you just don't like it, that is a choice you've made and you (and your team) must live with the consequences.

To use a simple analogy, I don't care how good your needle-nosed pliers are or how handy you are with them, if you need to drive in a nail you're probably in trouble. Pliers aren't going to get the job done. You've got to pick up that hammer, no matter how you feel about it.

If you need to really listen, get input and answer concerns, a one-way webinar or town hall conference call with limited interaction will not get the job done. It's not that there's anything wrong with your platform, you might simply have to do smaller, more interactive sessions to really help your team understand and digest the situation.

Using email to break bad news might be appropriate given the need for speed and consistency of messaging, but maybe you need to add a component like a Q&A forum, or a team wiki or a Facebook-style page to address concerns, let people vent and share information.

In both those examples, the leader must look at the purpose and desired outcome of the communication, choose the right tool (and odds are you have it at your disposal) then execute that communication well. If all three of those things don't happen, the result will be less than you'd like it to be.

This, of course, means that the leader and team members must understand the communication need, be aware of the tools at their disposal, be able to use them (this involves both access and know-how) and choose to make the effort to use them well.

Two things are true about virtual teams and remote work. First, it's not easy to work effectively when you aren't in physical proximity. Second, it's not impossible. Once you accept both those facts, it actually gets easier to address performance and communication problems.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

Wayne Turmel is a speaker, writer and co-founder of The Remote Leadership Institute. He’s passionate about helping people present, sell and lead people and projects using today’s virtual communication technology. His books include Meet Like You Mean It - a Leader’s Guide to Painless and Productive Virtual Meetings. Wayne is based in Chicago, IL.