No team can function without communication and many fail because of misunderstandings, unresolved conflicts, lack of accountability, information hording, or other communication failures. From a shared understanding of why the team exists to the celebration of team success, teams can fail or thrive based on their ability to build meaning or share understanding by imparting and receiving information. Building communication skills on a team can also build their level of trust by preventing misunderstandings and making difficult conversations more productive.
Great communication is the main tactic teams use to build up each pillar of the five behaviors of a cohesive team. We get to higher results only after spending the time and attention needed to build trust, engage in conflict, commit to the team, and hold each other accountable. Poor communication can easily crumble the foundation of any of these pillars and send the team back to re-establishing trust.
1. Make your intentions clear
Written messages, especially short ones, are more easily misinterpreted than spoken words. The reader might be rushed and not read carefully. Readers are also more likely to perceive written messages as less positive than the writer intended. While the writer might intend to convey a positive message, the recipient is likely to read it as neutral. If the writer intends to be neutral, the recipient is likely to read it as negative.
As an example, the communicator might assume that the recipient is in the same mental state as they are. If I’ve been absorbed in a task and it’s been going really well, I might assume that others are also in that positive state. Consequently, I assume a recipient will read something like “Let’s talk” as “Let’s talk. I really want to hear how you’re doing.” Or “Let’s talk. I think you’ve got a great idea here.” However, recipients might read it as “Let’s talk, there’s a problem here” or “Let’s talk. You’re obviously in over your head.” You might be writing just after a great earnings report was released. The recipient might be reading just after the dog barfed on their chair. Messages need to be unambiguous.
A statement indicating if a response is needed, what kind of response is expected, and a timeline for a response are all helpful additions to a written message. Also consider using bullets or highlighted text to add emphasis and direct the reader’s attention. If the message is long, perhaps you should split it up into more easily digested parts.
Let me share a personal example. A colleague was brave enough to challenge me about a written response to her sharing of good news. She was insulted by my response. We spoke about my intent and misunderstanding, and also about punctuation and word choice. Later, she shared other news with our group and I responded. I didn’t re-read my response until after I sent it (easy mistake for fast-paced personalities to make) and could see how it might have come across as snarky or like I was a know-it-all. So I checked back with her. She reflected that my inclusion of an exclamation mark helped her read my response in a friendly tone. I hate exclamation points, but now use them more frequently. I’m learning to err on the side of positivity, even if that doesn’t come naturally. I’m also getting better at proofreading for emotion, not just grammar.
Remember that no one likes to be ignored. Not responding in a timely manner to an important message can imply you don’t care. But you don’t know if you agree on what’s important or what is timely unless you’ve made it clear or have come to a shared understanding around these concepts. Also be aware that communicating outside agreed-upon work hours can imply that you expect others to do the same unless you’ve made it clear in your message.
Make the effort to be clear and to check on how important messages have been received or interpreted.
2. Match the technology of communication to the task of the message
Consider not what channel or technology is most convenient for you, but which is most likely to get your message across and understood. Should you use chat, video, email, phone, newsletter update, forum post, intranet post, or a text? Which is most appropriate for the formality, tone, and content of your message?
Also consider who needs to view, read, or hear your message. Are you including those who don’t care and might start ignoring your messages? Did you forget a remote team member?
If your message is complicated or critical do you need an image or video to make your message clear? Do you need to see each other’s nonverbal cues? Is there a risk of misunderstanding? Do you need to elicit differing viewpoints?
Of course, we encourage everyone to consider the DiSC styles of recipients when composing a message. How can you adjust your tone, level of detail, or length to better match the recipient’s preferences?
3. Stay in sync with the entire team
Teams work best when they are aligned in purpose. Having a team charter or, at least, a clear vision will help with this. A shared understanding of roles and the team’s key performance indicators can also help. But an initial or top-level understanding isn’t enough. A basketball team might know everyone’s positions and that they need to achieve the highest score, but they won’t function unless they are all working together, and that can’t happen if everyone isn’t in sync and playing together.
The opportunities for face-to-face chats have decreased for almost all of us. We have fewer opportunities to see what others are working on, needing help with, or being energized by. Status meetings may need to be scheduled for quick review of tasks, to celebrate progress, to ask if anyone needs help or resources, to confirm expectations, or review learning opportunities. How well does your team do keeping everyone feeling connected to the work of the entire team?
Even when team members share an office location, some members might fall out of the loop. This can happen unintentionally. Team members can become distracted by demands from other teams, family, or any number of other influences. Technology can fail. Motivation can lag. If someone falls silent, team members should be there to check in with them. Keeping each other informed, checking in on each other, seeking clarification, restating messages, and testing various ways of communicating are all ways of building and maintaining alignment. Communication is as much about how well you listen and interpret as it is about how well you impart information.
4. Be responsive and supportive
Cohesive and productive teams attend to more than just the tasks in front of them. The best ones build a high level of trust and almost always begin their interactions by assuming positive intent. Because trust can be so easily lost and hard to regain, these teams know they need to continually earn trust and show trust. The members of great teams genuinely care about each other as well as about their work.
How can you convey emotions of warmth, sincerity, and friendliness in virtual spaces? One example is allowing time for small talk in meetings, allowing for the building of more personal connections between and among members. We show interest and care by asking questions and sharing stories.
Trust can be built through familiarity, affability, and quality time spent together. The DiSC D- and C-style members on a team might find it particularly challenging to understand the need for, or take part in, touchy-feely interactions, particularly in a virtual space. However, that doesn’t mean they, and everyone on a team, shouldn’t engage in informal, responsive, and supportive communication.
Another way to display affability and respect is to simply thank others for their work, support, or interest. It can be challenging to find ways to reward and acknowledge people virtually. If you can’t walk past someone and say “thanks for the help” or “Shea said great things about you in that meeting,” or “I tried your recipe,” you have to determine how and where to share these same comments. Even the quickest and simplest of thanks benefits a relationship.
5. Be open and inclusive
The Five Behaviors Team Development training shows how conflict can arise from our differences and that this conflict can be incredibly productive. It even encourages the mining for conflict before asking for a commitment to action. It’s important, then, to be sure all communication is inclusive.
This might mean that individual and team communication needs to adapt to the needs of every recipient. You might need to consider differing time zones, connectivity speeds, culture expectations, prior workplace or life experiences, DiSC styles, or other differences your team has identified. A frank discussion about communication problems the team has had in the past is an obvious opportunity for identifying ways to be more inclusive.
What are your team’s shared expectations for delivering feedback? For holding each other accountable? For making change requests? For when a message needs to go out to the entire team and when it should not? For sharing a personal event? How will you solicit the viewpoints of all team members? When is it OK not to respond to a message? How will everyone signal their commitment to a team decision? What goes on a group chat and what should not? These are just a few communication-related questions worthy of discussion and agreement.
Why not review these five communication behaviors during your next team meeting?
Thanks to the MIT Sloan Management Review article “Five ways to improve communication in virtual teams” for the framework for this article.
Other relevant articles include:
Why remote work has eroded trust among colleagues, BBC
Giving Feedback Is Even Harder Remotely, Harvard Business Review
How to Manage Conflict in Virtual Teams, Harvard Business Review
Leading Virtual Teams: 7-Steps to Hold People Accountable, Dale Carnegie
10 Tips for Effective Communication With a Remote Team, Venngage
What a Compassionate Email Culture Looks Like, Harvard Business Review
by Kristeen Bullwinkle