The 'Other Side' of ICT: Less Empathy – Part 4

Posted on 3rd January 2017


Welcome to the Business Empathy Forum and thank you for your visit. In this post I continue discussing potential pitfalls of over-reliance upon ICT, focusing on trust in virtual teams, and particularly the nuances of language, culture and personality.

The Price We Pay for Connectivity, Part 4

Let us imagine that Paulo from Brazil is on a conference call with Eva from Zurich and Brandon from Chicago. Paulo’s first language is Portuguese, Eva’s is German, and Brandon’s is English, and the language of the call is English. Paulo understands English well but is not as comfortable speaking it, so he will do most of his talking on his own agenda points, for which he has prepared carefully. He will listen with care to Eva and Brandon when they speak, but take a passive role, focusing on comprehension and not on a thoughtful dialogue with the other two.

Eva is comfortable with English and is the senior member of this three-person virtual team. Eva asked for the meeting and has a long agenda for the call. She is interested in getting through that agenda in one hour and gaining agreement on the action points, not in long discussions or too many questions from her colleagues. Over the course of the call, both Paulo and Brandon try to raise questions and ask for details on points that touch on their portfolios, but in her desire to get through the call in the allotted time, Eva cuts them off and pushes on to the next points. After several attempts Brandon and Paulo stop asking questions and focus on their deliverables.

Brandon speaks English and is fully engaged, but he speaks quickly and has an accent that is difficult for Eva and Paulo to understand. Neither wants to offend Brandon by mentioning his accent or asking him to slow down, so they ask him at the end of every call to send his thoughts to them in an e-mail. Brandon always complies with this but is irritated because no one else is ever asked to put comments in writing.

These people are all doing their professional best, and chances are that they will obtain good results because they are intelligent and work hard. But notice the leakages in their communication: Paulo is passive when not on his agenda points, so he doesn’t contribute as much as he could and creativity is a casualty. Eva has a tendency under time pressure to railroad through calls and ignore questions or concerns, which creates obvious risks. And Brandon is hard for the others to understand. This virtual team is functioning, but trust and rapport issues are eroding effective communication already compromised by technology, physical distance, and time zones. There is clearly room for improvement here, with a simple investment of some time and attention.

Good luck, and until next time…