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Influencing Virtually

Our ability to influence colleagues in a virtual context depend to a large degree on three factors:

  1. The amount of ‘social capital’ we have accumulated in the ‘trust bank’ of the counterpart we are trying to influence.
  2. Appropriate use of the right channel (eg. email, call, telco, video conference, etc) to send the right message.
  3. An ability to match your approach with the expectations as well as the emotional and rational needs of your counterpart.

1.    Social capital in the trust bank

What I want from you to trust you may not be what you want from me for you to trust me. Therefore, other people can have a slightly different set of ‘high priority trust needs’ compared to what we would instinctively require ourselves – especially when socialized in diverse cultures. For example, high and low context preferences can have a strong impact on our perceptions that others are trustworthy or not. The lower context communicator may be looking for a clear match between what people say (making promises) and what they actually do (delivery on promises). On the other hand, higher context communicators may be looking more for an intrinsic investment in the relationship, for the sake of the relationship and beyond the short term requirements of the professional needs of our functional role. They may also be much more sensitive to reading between the lines in what people say and don’t say, and interpret comments in an email with a degree of paranoia if the relationship has not been carefully established previously.

Without trust we will always be cautious about the risk that others could take advantage of our weaknesses if we reveal them and if there is a communication breakdown, we are more likely to fill the gaps in understanding with negative interpretations of the other person’s intent towards us. On the other hand, if we have consolidated a strong basis of trust between us, even if we have a misunderstanding we would generally give the other person the benefit of the doubt when interpreting their intentions: “He’s just had a bad day – like we all have”.

In virtual contexts it is harder to know when there is a conflict ‘in the air’. With higher levels of trust people are more able to put uncomfortable issues on the table – so conflicts can be dealt with earlier before they fester and cause irretrievable breakdowns in relationships.

We can build our trust bank with others by doing the following:

–       Frame our own approach to others so that they understand where we are coming from – not just out of a black box. So, comment on your own style and how that might impact on others positively and negatively. Explain your context and why you are requesting what you are requesting and how it fits into a wider organisation context, set of practices or expected behaviors locally. For example in an email with a new counterpart who you suspect may have a higher context email style than your own you could say: “It’s typical for us here in country X to be pretty direct in giving feedback; people don’t take it personally and it helps put things on the table fast…but I see how it could appear a bit pushy”.

–       Deliver on Promises. When you promise – do it! Always. Never promising to do anything is not an alternative. Lead with fewer words about what you will do and more action. The quickest way to break trust is to promise and then not to deliver. But, of course, be careful that as a lower context communicator you haven’t forced the other higher context communicator into making a promise they can’t keep. Check the real constraints by asking something like: “what could impact on your ability to meet this promise…for example how supportive is your direct manager on this issue?” The second quickest way to break trust it to be known as someone who never commits to do anything! Both types of people are always full of complicated excuses….which we don’t really believe.

–       Extend trust to others. You have to give trust to get it. Incrementally extend your trust towards colleagues – adding 10% at a time. Most people want to deserve your trust. High trust increases the speed of work, increases motivation & energy and lowers costs. The organisation earns a trust dividend. Suffocating control through checking and double checking is the opposite of trust. Untrusting control slows everything down, reduces personal motivation & energy and increases costs. The organisation pays a trust tax.

–       Build openness. Admit mistakes. Doing it right first time is for the Emergency Room in hospitals; be humble. Encourage EVERYONE to speak up. Defend the quiet voices during teleconferences: their ideas are often valuable but lost; Share the larger organisational context you have access to with people. No one working in your organization is perfect. People close down with colleagues who are not confidently self-critical, but instead regularly blame others. Dominating and aggressive behavior (even when you have the excuse of ‘frustration’) when you have a bit of authority or informal influence is abusing power – again people shut down. Colleagues who don’t share their wider understanding of the organisation are seen as secretive.

2.    Matching appropriate channels

One of the biggest challenges of working in culturally diverse teams at a distance is gaining a sense of commonality around sensitive process issues such as the role of emails (who to cc, when to defer to a call, response time expectations), the choice of language, and appropriate etiquette in teleconferences. Creating ground rules, rather than allowing the (more powerful) cultural groups to go their own way, provides an opportunity for creating a project culture that can help build longer-term commitment. The simple process of allowing everyone to be heard on their preferences both sensitizes the group to diverse needs and allows people to feel heard which makes it easier to commit to any decisions made.

Insights into the high and low context preferences of your colleagues can build your sensitivity to whether an email is enough or if it’s time to pick up the phone. So ensure that there is a healthy and culturally sensitive balance between focusing on task and relationship-building within a project.

Review the channels of communication you have available to you and what you will need to face (key tasks, issues such as using these channels). See example below from our book on Managing Challenges across cultures – a multicultural project team toolbox. This is the output from a team in the review stage of our Communication Audit Tool. Part 1 of the tool helps teams to be sensitive to how well they are presently managing the technology mix and how to improve their use of the channels available.

3.    Matching expectation and needs

Knowing what culturally different (or simply different) colleagues expect and need from you in a virtual project is a prerequisite for a key aspect of trust. The perception that others are exchanging information with each other proactively is key to this. A simple thing to do is simply to ask them.

  • “What do you expect and need from me on this project for you to contribute yourself at the highest level?”
  • “Where do you need more or less involvement/information/support from me?”
  • “Can you explain why this is so important for you (in your context)?”

If everyone did this with the various stakeholders in the early stages (eg. using a teleconference or sending round a questionnaire), about 50% of misunderstandings and misjudgments could be avoided in virtual project work. Sometimes people simply don’t know what others need – or if they do, they don’t understand why they need it, and so are demotivated to put them at the top of their agenda.

Another approach to match needs and expectations is on the HOW side rather than the WHAT or content side. Generally we feel more positively disposed to support people who can synchronize their own style of communicating with our own (eg. high or low context; emotional or neutral; logical or intuitive). So, as long as you are not compromising your ultimate goals and personal beliefs, focus on mirroring and matching the style of your colleagues. Not monkeying, but simple softening your own default style which seems to be in direct contrast to theirs. You may be surprised that a small ‘adjustment’ in your own style can completely change the chemistry of the relationship…and make the substantive issues more easily dealt with.

Influencing is a key part of our series of open Global Agility programs. Take a sampler of our Influencing Agility Questionnaire and get an insight into your own default approach to an essential skill to thrive in today’s complex, networked and multi-stakeholder organizations.

TCO products, VUCA

Personal agility in a global context

Have you ever in a moment of quiet reflection looked back at your life and asked yourself ‘how did I get here?’ I did this recently when I reflected on how a young boy – who had grown up in a small town in the UK with a local sales rep as a father and legal secretary as a mother – had ended up with a Chinese wife and Chinese-speaking kids, running workshops linked to the theme of global agility around the world.

It struck me how ‘global’ I and others like me have become in just one generation. It also struck me that the story behind this global development in my personal and professional life is not so much the end result of carefully followed personal career planning and ambition; nor even a deep-seated curiosity about the world from my childhood. It came about more through a readiness to ‘go with the flow’ and embrace the unknown in a fast-changing and rapidly globalising world.

I remember a moment in the early 90s when I accepted an unexpected offer to lecture in a Chinese business school. It meant designing and teaching an introduction to management that I had never done before, in a cultural context that I had no experience of.  For the growing numbers of others like me, it is often not so much a case of ‘shaping your life’ but rather remaining agile in those moments when ‘life reaches out to shape you’. Looking back, I realised that I had been ready to take an opportunity to accept the unknown, to participate in the opening up of China, in ways that would have long-terms implications for my life. Looking back, our life seems to be made up of neatly converging paths which meet in the present; looking forward our future path can seem hidden in a confusing, intimidating and impenetrable jungle.

What helps us to embrace these kinds of opportunities and then thrive, rather than just survive, in everything that evolves out of them? Undoubtedly, in my case, what helped me to start off was a bungee jumping sense of adventure, a flexibility in behaviour and a growing awareness of the different cultural values of those growing up in different parts of the world.  As time has gone by, these personal resources have developed. I have a growing self-confidence in my ability to manage whatever challenges life throws my way, an ability to choose when to adapt and when not to, and finally an ability to respond to whatever behaviours are displayed in front of me by international partners despite what it says is ‘normal’ in the cross-cultural literature. It always helps to remind myself that, while we constantly yearn for an oasis of calm when the testing time is over and things calm down, life will always throw something else at you.

There has never been a time when the global context we live in presents so many opportunities to shape us in new and unexpected ways. The VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) environment we inhabit means that as professionals we no longer have to take expatriate assignments in places like China to experience being taken out of our comfort zone. My colleagues in TCO International and I have realised that what we offer to our clients is no longer the ability to ‘go global’ but ‘grow globally’. When we first started 25 years ago, the primary challenge was to help people cross borders, linguistically and culturally. Now globalisation has sparked a new generation of organisations. These are either ‘born global’ or after a period of rapid expansion into new markets, and the acceleration of virtual working, are consolidating the relationships they had developed in a period of expansion. The number of expatriates may be going down but the expatriate challenge – needing to achieve high performance when engaging with global partners while managing personal change – is growing exponentially. After all, VUCA comes to us; we don’t need to seek it out.

In TCO International we believe that the key ability required by all of us to thrive rather than just survive is global agility ‘How can I think, act and create value in an interconnected VUCA environment’.

By ‘thinking’ we mean understanding without stereotyping others; being self-aware while understanding that there is no limit to how we will be seen by others across geographic and organisational boundaries. Even the most positive cultural ‘generalizations’ about others may need to be put aside in a world where the behaviours of so many local professionals are already partially adapted to the styles of their international partners. I am constantly meeting Chinese professionals who have never lived abroad but whose experience of working for Foreign Invested Enterprise (FIEs) in China gives them an ability to switch from a face-saving style with their local Chinese colleagues to a straight-talking, task-oriented approach to giving feedback with Europeans and North Americans.

By ‘acting’ we mean making decisions and initiating contact with others without ever knowing exactly how they will respond. This requires us to draw on a combination of making our own intentions clear, while exploring the needs of others, so that we negotiate ‘what we mean’ in the present moment. Too much reliance on goals and plans and we can lose the opportunities provided by the present. Too much adaptability and we can lose track of our goals. By ‘creating value’ we mean ensuring that we have the ability to build trust, relationships and ‘comfortable levels of clarity’ in every interaction without always having the opportunity for longer-term relationship-building that existed among colleagues rubbing shoulders together in the traditional workplace.

In supporting personal agility in a VUCA global context we help individuals manage the dilemma they face between focusing on ‘My Way’ (getting things done and remaining authentic to yourself) and ‘Your way’ (knowing how and when to adapt to others).  Our belief is that we can build trust and credibility with new global partners through either approach. You can ‘frame’ the benefits of your preferred style of communication to your global partner but knowing how and when to ‘adapt’ to their local way of doing things is likely to help you succeed when visiting their country or supporting one of their clients.

In our global agility framework there are 4 areas of ability which act as compass points in helping us to navigate the My Way and Your Way dilemma in an interconnected VUCA environment.

  1. Self-awareness (my way)
  2. Intentionality (my way)
  3. Other awareness (your way)
  4. Connectivity (your way)

These abilities relate to 4 questions which connect to the ‘inner world’ of feeling and thinking, as well as to the outer world of doing and saying. We draw on a combination of experiential activities, personal reflection, and coaching to help individuals engage with these questions, as well as find their own answers.

Self-awareness and Intentionality. In terms of the ‘My way’ of approaching global agility you need to ask yourself ‘How does VUCA impact on me? What do I need?’. In terms of the ‘inner world’ are you, for example, someone who quickly requires closure and certainty when faced with the unexpected or are you happy to ride the waves of uncertainty? But such ‘self-awareness’ is not enough, and needs to be turned into action. You need to answer the question ‘How can I take responsibility for my behaviour when faced with VUCA? What can I say and do?’. This requires a focus on expressing your own intentions, needs and non-negotiable values (we call it Intentionality). It may need to include clarification of the benefits these needs and values bring to others. Such ‘intentionality’ is even more convincing if it includes an awareness of how you may be perceived by others from different organisational or cultural backgrounds. Recognising how our own behaviour may be seen as challenging reflected in the eyes of others can be important for trust-building – a critical upfront investment in creating value in a VUCA context.

Other-awareness and Connectivity. In terms of the ‘Your way’, you need to ask yourself ‘How does VUCA impact on those who I interact with? What do they need?’. How does, for example, the spirit of adventure and resilience of your international partner compare with yours? How do they respond in a crisis? What aspects of VUCA are going on in their local context? To what degree are they primed by culturally-motivated instincts that drive them to avoid uncertainty and dislike learning by mistakes? In terms of the ‘outer world’, such ‘other-awareness’ is again not enough.  You need to respond to others and answer the following question ‘How can I create value with others when we face with VUCA? What can we build together?’ In certain cultural contexts, despite one’s natural impatience to get down to the task in hand, a willingness to work on the personal relationship-building through an informal chat over a meal, at the start of a call or around the coffee machine might provoke the right climate for progress.

In TCO International our approach to Global Agility has been shaped by examining ourselves and those effective leaders and professionals that we have met and worked with, by answering the question that I asked myself at the beginning of this blog: how did I get here? The answer lies neither in the opposite poles of a planned strategy, on the one hand, nor a bungee-jumping spirit of adventure, on the other. It lies in a structured framework of choices that an individual can implement as they are challenged in the moment with the new people and unknown paths that this global context increasingly presents us with.

Are you curious about the choices you can make when you need to influence people in an unknown environment? Start by testing your Influencing Agility. It takes just a few minutes and it shows you both your default influencing style, and the related opposite that would allow you to become a much stronger influencer.

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