This blog is for those of you in the charity sector that are now leading teams remotely. This is a big challenge for you, your staff and your organisation and can take its toll. Your previous ways of leading often need a tweak or in some cases a radical overhaul.
This article explores the tricky subject of communicating with remote staff, which will make or break your leadership.
Get the technology right
Make sure your team members have the same access to technology and are using it in a similar way. And agree some expectations with your team. Are you going to call in daily, weekly or what? Will you set up a WhatsApp group and how will you use it? Are you a Microsoft teams, Skype or Zoom charity?
Even more communications are by email or text than before so what are your expectations? Do you want emails etc acknowledged? If so, what is the time scale?
What are the barriers to good communication?
Good communications are all about how the message is received. When we are face to face it is estimated that around 60% of our communication is through body language, 30% by tone and only 10% the words we use. So when we are communicating remotely we are often relying on just words or words and tone.
Let me offer several ways in which we can improve or communications while managing remotely or at least minimise poor communication.
Three questions to ask yourself before pressing the SEND button.
First of all, think about the following before you write your email or pick up the phone
1. What do you want them to know?
2. What do you want them to do?
3. How do you want them to feel?
Often, we leave things inexplicit so that people must work out or get wrong what you are telling or asking them. Please think about spelling out what you want your staff to know and do with any parameters around them e.g. deadlines, budget restrictions are the most obvious ones but can include who you want the person/team to consult with before taking action.
The most difficult of the three communication questions is: How do you want them to feel? Part of the difficulty, particularly with email, is that you are not getting the instant feedback of reaction as you might in face to face that would allow you to nuance the message and if necessary, explain or add to.
A few tips make this easier:
- Try and make the email feel warm with a friendly greeting and particularly at this time an appropriate enquiry about their and family health and wellbeing.
- When asking people to do something explain the context. Answer the question why?
- Explain why you are asking them in particular to do something. Is this part of their strengths, is this a development opportunity?
- Explain where it fits in to any teamwork.
- If you can try linking it to the bigger picture or an objective that it is helping to fulfil or a direct link to the purpose of the organisation
Let me give you an example.
If I am asking a member of my team to review and update the database of donors. I might give them a deadline. I might ask them to cross check with two other colleagues. I could explain that I have asked them to do it because they have excellent attention to detail skills and will be both accurate and speedy. I explain how the team will use the updated database and I tell the individual our aspiration that the database will be used for a fundraising appeal during the pandemic to help a particular sub sector of our beneficiaries.
Checking for understanding
In addition to the above example I would want to get some feedback giving me a sense of understanding of the task. There is a danger that if we ask for feedback at all we ask a closed question. For example, we might ask, “Are you OK to do this?” or even “Are there any difficulties in doing this work within the deadline?” which could be answered with a yes or no type response. We are looking for understanding. So, a question such as “what do you envisage the most difficult part of the task is?” should allow you a sense of if they have understood what you are asking them to do.
Variations on getting feedback on your communication is to ask for a first draft of the work so that you and the person can review prior to the final version being produced.
For particularly important or complex communications it is best practice to follow up any written communication with a telephone call. Again, you have to avoid the trap of asking closed questions that can continue a misunderstanding. One technique I have used with some success is to ask the person I have asked to do the work to score their likelihood of being able to deliver the work on time and budget. Ten indicating they are very confident and zero suggesting they have a low probability of do it. Typically, staff will say a score of between 5 and 8. This then gives you an opening to ask what would need to happen for it to be scored 10. This conversation usually leads to an opportunity to explore the concerns of the staff member and how you might help them by providing additional support, changing the deadline, temporarily taking other responsibilities off them, providing technical training and others.
The elephant in the room
There is a little word joke that says “assume” makes an ass out of u and me. This is where many communications can go wrong. We assume based on our own context and understanding. A CEO who talks of a short-term fix might be thinking in terms of months, yet a front-line staff member might use the same word to talk about something to get them through the day.
In my training courses I run a light-hearted exercise that asks everyone to shut their eyes and imagine an elephant. They then open their eyes and I pick one of them at random to describe their elephant, where it is, what it is doing and anything else they want to tell us. I then ask the rest of the room “is your elephant like that?” a few are but not identical and we go round the room until we have all the elephants on view.
It is a powerful way to show that we all have assumptions about things that have been communicated and a good communicator will try to minimise the assumptions to ensure they all know what kind of “elephant” they want them to think about.
Seek first to understand and then to communicate
Finally, perhaps the most important way in which a leader can build a strong remote team is by managing by listening. As Stephen Covey in his book “Seven habits of highly effective people” says good communications starts with understanding the other person’s views, ideas and concerns. We do that through active listening and simple but powerful coaching questions.
For example if we want a staff member to take on a task it is often more productive to start the dialogue with a question about their current workload, for example “what have you got on your plate this week?” with simple follow up questions such as how do you feel about that? What is your biggest challenge and the very simple but very powerful “and what else?” This combined with good active listening will allow you to consider if the task you want the person to do is doable, appropriate or more of a priority than the current to do list. To not “seek first to understand” can build a bit of resentment and resistance which creates a barrier to good open and honest communication which is needed even more when leading a remote team.
To sum up remote leadership is an opportunity to step up and be a great leader. Excellent leadership needs thoughtful, considerate and caring communications. I hope these ideas reinforce your good habits and help you reflect on any areas of development.
With best wishes and stay safe
Rob Legge is a Leadership trainer for BVSC and independent leadership coach to 3rd sector organisations. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org