How Can Leaders Better Connect In The Virtual Environment?

How can leaders better connect in the virtual environment

By Lorraine Hopkins – 20Twenty Leadership Programme Tutor.

It’s widely acknowledged by many, that being a leader of people now is harder than it was pre-pandemic.  One of the biggest shifts is that the role of leading, for many people, has moved online or to what’s often termed now as “virtual leadership”. 

What is especially good about the 20Twenty Leadership programme is that we look at the academic evidence for leadership development. We invite you apply them in a practical way into your business.

Here’s a set of practical tools we can apply to assist us with these new challenges.  These tools originate from business psychology, an industry that is obsessed with understanding how people think and feel in the workplace.

Conversational Intelligence for Virtual Leadership – Building Trust

Leaders hiring business coaches has seen a meteoric rise in recent years and they have been using these tools for decades, sometimes described as Conversational Intelligence or CI.

CI, essentially helps drive our leadership towards a core element of leading people – and that is building trust. Without the face to face dynamic, which is full of context, chemistry, full periphery vision and non-verbal cues, how can leaders continue to build trust between themselves and their teams? 

There are better ways for leaders to have conversations online. 

Here are the top 3 techniques that can be applied to managing people online.  If you use these tools in meetings with your teams, over time, you will notice an increase in trust and staff taking responsibility:

  1. Asking Questions
  2. Allowing Silence
  3. Using Reflection

1) Asking Open Questions

Transformative leaders focus more on asking than telling. Asking open questions is a core tool used by business coaches to deepen listening that brings out the potential in others.

Use open questions with the people you manage, for example:

  • What have you learned from this challenge?
  • What would you do differently in the future if you could do it again?
  • How would you approach this if you had full authority?
  • What would you try differently to get a different result?
  • How else can I help you in the future?

Asking open questions is something we can do in person and online.  But as online conversations are so much more direct and intense it is easy to forget; mind sets, and time sets have shifted to become shorter paced. 

Try being deliberate about open questions.  You will see results as it ignites thinking, excitement and empowers others.

2) Allowing Silence

Nancy Kline, Director of the Leadership Institute, a pioneer in leadership development wrote “Time to Think”. She advocates being intentional about silence, particularly in virtual settings. 

To allow for silence in your online meetings, you can use the 3 second rule. After you have asked your open question, remain silent for at least 3 seconds. You can count it in your mind if it helps.

Because of the pace of online meetings and because they are so direct, it can feel incredibly tempting to notice silence and jump in with another question or a suggested answer. 

It can feel especially strange at first, to hold silence online, but a 3 second silence allows for deeper reflection and engagement.  

People become more comfortable with challenging the status quo, and the result is a healthy environment which develops trust.

3) Reflection

Conversations are dynamic, they are not one way but a complex relationship between the two speakers. 

The speakers message depends on how the listener interprets it.  The tool of reflection shows us how important it is to not assume understanding when you are managing others. 

You can use reflection to clarify what has been said and ask the listener to reflect. For example, try asking:

“Could you summarise to me what your intentions are now?” or “How might you prioritise your tasks this week?”

Personality Types

Knowing your people and their personality type can offer significant advantage in reflection. 

For example, if you are in a meeting with a ‘Reflector’ personality type (the type who needs time to think before acting). You will likely find online meetings too intense or uncomfortable and become passive. 

If you know your team members well, you can adapt how you reflect.  You can lessen eye contact, suggest a minute pause for reflection and use note talking to allow a natural break in the intensity. 

This helps your team members feel more comfortable and open.  You are building trust. 

More Tips on Virtual Leadership

The same 3 tools can be used for virtually leading teams.  A study in the journal of Organisational Science recently found that teams lacking in trust tended to have unpredictable communication patterns, often with just one or two members accounting for most of the talk.

Here are some interesting recommendations that can be implied from this paper:

  • Personalise online meetings – Keep videos on, even for large teams. Tell people ahead you will be asking them to contribute, this discourages multi-tasking whilst at the meeting.
  • Engage your team – Create structured opportunities for attendees to contribute and avoid what’s called the “diffusion of responsibility”. For example, use 3-minute breakout groups to discuss and feedback.
  • Business Coaches often walk with their clients – Consider mobile team meetings whilst walking, if its practical. This can help build relationships and ultimately trust.
  • Share and rotate power – In a virtual environment, centralized power structures are less effective. Invite each team member to take their turn as leader for the meeting.

If we don’t change our approach to virtual leadership then we risk a breakdown of relationships as well as online / virtual fatigue or ‘cognitive overload’. These three simple tools can transform how you manage people online. 

Below is the full presentation of the topic discussed above:

Conversational Intelligence for Virtual Leadership - Lorraine Hopkins


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