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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.

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