Coach's Corner

A selection from frequently–asked questions

Dear Coach,
We work in a medium-sized organization with several geographically dispersed offices sharing projects extensively and continuously. We’ve tried many times to build better relationships between the various individuals across the Company who must cooperate in the work despite the distances and time zones involved but we seem to be more divided than ever before; now there’re even cliques and factions developing all over. How could we be more integrated and cohesive as teams and work groups?

I have the impression that you believe that this physical separation is the major, if not the only factor in your deteriorating relationships. Could we begin by challenging this idea?

Non-productive conflict and disputes within an organization can arise from many sources. Those that come immediately to mind would include:

  • Individualised goals and standards
  • Historical difficulties and estrangements
  • Obstacles or restrictions in communication
  • Inappropriate incentives, inducements and rewards
  • Restrictive or unduly rigid systems and procedures
  • Physical / psychological separation.

Note that physical separation is just one area of influence. While there’s no reason why it should overwhelm the accumulated impact of the other five, the stark reality is that it can exacerbate problems, create difficulties in both identifying and resolving them, and lead to extensive avoidance practices.

In recent "Long Distance Loathing” study, VitalSmarts discovered that employees are 243 percent more likely to have problems with distant co-workers than with co-located individuals! They also found that long-distance problems endure longer, are more challenging to resolve, and that the resultant coping practices likely include:

  • Avoiding answering phone calls when the caller is known
  • Failing to return or respond to messages / requests
  • Deliberately multi-tasking during contacts which dilutes attention and focus
  • Task avoidance and/or deferment
  • Superficial or overly-accommodating responses
  • Failing to involve or share with distant parties
  • Engaging in gossip or demeaning activities that relate
  • Being critical or demanding to an unreasonable degree
  • Challenging opinions, judgments and/or decisions beyond reason.

Such behaviours are far from productive, satisfying, respectful or authentic and constitute a real challenge for the leader. If we accept that such conflicts are avoidable and we apply increased time and effort to the remaining areas of influence – through deliberate attention to focus and facilitation, the leader’s tools -  we can steer the team in the right direction.

Here are seven strategies that would be well-worth your consideration.

Strategy 1 – Personal Motivation; a primary need is to ensure the creation of a group or team identity, with shared purpose, engagement and standards of performance. This is best accomplished by the group itself rather than imposed. It can be expanded to include power and resource sharing, establishing working practices and communication / decision channels.

Even where geographically separate, members will benefit greatly by face-to-face contact for this important start-up activity. Video conferencing will substitute for actual meetings although the latter is preferred. Each member of the group needs to ‘position’ him/herself with the group and to create a real (versus virtual) awareness of the person behind the role or function.

Strategy 2 – Personal Competence / Confidence: We all work best from our strengths and passions, more so than from our cognitive abilities (special knowledge, skills and experience).  This information needs to be shared and openly discussed and internalised by group members so that everyone is focused on the more powerful personal aspects of each individual’s contributions.

Special attention should be given to facilitation, decision making and communication, as well as to reporting and conflict resolution skills, so that any member can take early and effective action to move the project forward as / when opportunities arise. Nothing builds group cohesion faster than expedited, discernable progress towards collective goals.

Strategy 3 – Relationship Development: It’s vital to get to know the real people and to broaden one’s appreciation of what others can do - and actually want to do. This can be achieved quickly and impactfully by having each person tell a story about when they were at their very best. This provides valuable insights to their passions and strengths – what it is that turns them on and also identifies them as a unique individual.

If practicable, find non-work related activities for the group such as social projects that can be developed and shared, visits to each others or other sites and periodic review / audit sessions where process adjustments can be designed and implemented.

Strategy 4 – Gratitude and Appreciation: This is a powerful strategy that I’ve witnessed perform miracles even on its own. By incorporating it into a formal agenda in both impersonal (What I value in this past week’s experiences particularly is . . .) and personal (I really appreciate the extra time and effort that Julie put into the new schedule . . .) form, it will lend a substantial positive flavour to the proceedings as well as signal the higher value events and behaviours.

In time, and usually without further coercion, this same reinforcement will creep into the majority of spontaneous and personal transactions. Individuals begin to feel more valued and appreciated which in turn encourages them to contribute more which give more reasons to express gratitude – you get the message?

Strategy 5 – Extrinsic Motivations: there’s power in incentives, inducements and even in competition if properly used. To manage such external devices well the leader needs to focus on the meaningfulness of the event and outcome to the individual or group – only those that already have high intrinsic value can be triggered by selected external means.

This means that the group should select the external devices and, if possible, establish the rules for administration. If the leader sets appropriate parameters, this can be readily achieved; to apply an externally developed and managed program is usually a waste of time and credibility.

Strategy 6 – Transparency: It’s been demonstrated many times and in many ways – those who can see the scoreboard whenever they choose to look tend to perform so much better. They are generally more responsive, more sensitive to cues and more resilient in effort. They just need to know how well they’re doing.

Do you recall the log chopping experiment? People were paid $100/hr to chop a log using the blunt edge of an axe – few lasted even one hour. When the axe was turned and the chips flew they chopped happily at much lower rates of pay!  Place performance data where it can be accessed easily and safely by those who’d profit by the information.

Strategy 7 – Autonomy: finally, giving individuals and groups room to manoeuvre, the authority to define their own work processes and procedures means that they have enhanced ownership. This in turn increases their accountability and persistence, their commitment and their dedication. People will work harder and longer for themselves than for any ‘master’.

Allow them to set the standards and to enforce them. Encourage them to identify and resolve their own issues and the power to make a significant difference through their actions, and they will surprise you – pleasantly!

There’s more than enough technology to overcome the challenges of world-wide separation. The question is, is there sufficient political will to overcome the impediments of insensitive leadership? I hope this helps.