Culture & Competency

Dealing with Silence in Virtual Teams

When working on a virtual team — when the other people are invisible to you — interpreting silence is one of the biggest challenges. They are invisible to your eyes, and now inaudible to your ears. What do we make of this?

Silence can mean many things. It can mean that the other person is schedule-slammed, and has so much on their to do list that they just can not get a few spare minutes to respond to your question. Or it can mean that they are ignoring you, that they don’t want to engage with you on the work that you are jointly involved with. Or it can mean that they are working away diligently on the next thing that they are supposed to be working on, and don’t think it worthwhile saying that that’s what they’re doing, because that’s what they are supposed to be doing. Or it can mean that they are angry with you, and they never want to speak to you again. Although silence is just one message, it has many different interpretations! It’s no wonder that unexplained silence can be such a challenge to the efficacy of team relationships.

When each person has a project blog, the interpretation of silence is a lot easier. If someone is schedule-slammed, a post at the beginning of the week to say that they have a super-busy week coming up, and that they’ll be pretty much out of the loop goes a long way to ally fears and make it clear what’s actually going on. If they are busily working away on the next deliverable that they are accountable for, they can say that. Thus a project blog can adequately deal with two of the good reasons for silence, and a well-timed comment from others on the team can remind the person that it’s time to write more, or that they should keep on with what they’re doing.

But how do you use a project blog if you’re struggling with one of the other reasons? You have an grievance against one of the other team members, and it’s festering away. Or you’re really, really angry with what someone said to you on the last conference call, and you just want to avoid that person as much as possible. Is a project blog the place to air this?

No. It’s not blog content.

You need to approach the person privately, and request a meeting. If they are in another location, as is likely to be the case, it will have to be a phone call. When you talk to them, outline your view of what’s happened, and ask them how they see things. Hopefully, you can come to a place of agreement or resolution. If not, and you feel that the other person hasn’t listened, you need to request the presence of another person in second conversation. If that still doesn’t resolve it, take it to the wider team for an all-hands-on-deck discussion. Others may be able to force a resolution that you can not do on your own, or may drive the removal of the troublesome team member with someone better suited to the task at hand.

And let’s say this too. One of the greatest ways to overcome the possibility of silence being attributable to avoidance behaviors or anger with another, is for the team to have a frank conversation at the beginning of the project and to agree to keep a short account with each other. For a senior member of the team to say, in the hearing of everyone else, that it is very likely that disagreements will arise during the course of this work, and that these items aren’t personal but are reflective of different interpretations of what is right according to a certain frame of reference, and that when this happens the people involved agree to resolve the issues quickly. Where each person gives their word of honor to be honest with the others, to speak quickly about what is going on and what they are finding difficult, and to agree that they will resolve it to a point that everyone can accept. And then for everyone to hold the others to account during the course of the work.

Remember, when we work in virtual teams, all of this interaction is much more difficult that when we are together in person. In person it somehow seems a lot easier to hash the problem out, to draw things on the board to explain our position, to speak frankly about the problems we are experiencing than when we have to do these things remotely. But the reality is that much of our interaction with others is at a distance, and we need to get better at dealing with silence and coming to mutually agreeable resolutions when silence signals a breakdown in interpersonal relationship capability.

Categories: Culture & Competency

1 reply »

  1. Great advice Michael – this is commonly an issue with virtual teams. I really like your idea of using a Project Blog. For smaller groups I can see how other forms of online collaboration would work for this – possibly a team discussion board, wiki, or something like Yammer.
    I also think your advice for how to resolve the issue if it is actually a personal grievance is right on target. The important thing is discussing the ground rules up front for how your team will handle these situations so there are clear expectation.
    Thanks for sharing your wisdom on this as I know it is a frequent stumbling block for a lot of teams.
    All the best,