Having Difficult Conversations in Global Virtual Teams

keyboardBy Clare McNamara and Monica Garcia-Romero

Our research on Global Virtual Teams has highlighted the challenges of having difficult conversations virtually and on the phone, as opposed to face to face. Some people have a strong opinion when it comes to managing performance remotely. Most people find it difficult, and we would agree with that. It is not easy, but it is possible.

As global executives, leading large teams of direct reports located on 3 continents, we have had several remote, so called, “difficult conversations”. Most of them were part of a performance management process. We’ve had situations where performance of employees was well below par and, as people managers working remotely, have had to bite the bullet and deliver the performance feedback (based on a 360-degree assessment and rating system), followed by a 30-60-90 day performance management process, all of this via the phone. Happily everyone made significant progress and went on to perform on par or above expectations from then on.

The key success factors for effective “difficult” conversations in a virtual environment are:

    • Be candid, open and frank with your feedback
    • Let the person react to your comments, pause, listen, ask them how they feel, what they think
    • Focus on what and how they could have done better, not on what they did wrong
    • Focus on specific actions, have examples at hand, and avoid making it personal
    • Be very clear that your goal is to support them during this process.
    • Let them know they can come to you when they need to, that you are there to help them.
    • Give them realistic but stretching goals. If the expectations are too low, they will not be able to demonstrate an improvement.
    • Co-design a plan with them for the next 30-60-90 days, with specific goals, actions and checkpoints.
    • Schedule bi-weekly one-to-one meetings to review progress.

So how is this different from having difficult conversations face to face? Well, in some ways there is very little difference – the principles are the same. The widely held belief that only 7% of a message is conveyed by words is in fact not true – this is based on a study by Albert Mehrabian whose findings focused on what happens when body language conflicts with words, not on communication in general. So the fact that the person cannot see you (or you cannot see him/her), does not make it any less possible to communicate effectively. The trick is to listen very carefully (as point 2 above) to tone, pauses and what is not said. When you sense there is anxiety, frustration or tension, for example, reflect back what your hunch is and get clarity.

For more details on our work on Global Virtual Teams, please refer to our articles How to Build Relationships in Global Virtual TeamsManaging 24/7 Pressure in Global Virtual Teams and Seeing the Big Picture.

© Global Team Coaches 2014

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