One of the drawbacks for teams working remotely is the lack of context around communication. Virtual communication often lacks those nonverbal clues we pick up when we have face-to-face conversations with others. As a result, it can be easy to make assumptions or jump to conclusions that are damaging to working relationships.
“Our brains are hardwired to focus on the negative,” says Carson Tate, author of Own It. Love It. Make It Work. How to Make Any Job Your Dream Job. “It’s a survival mechanism, but it also leads us to make up stories, particularly in the virtual world when we’re all a little stressed.”
Believing the stories your brain’s default mechanism creates could harm work relationships, especially if you act on them. You could begin to undermine those relationships by treating people in a way that creates confusion and misunderstanding.
Do this instead
Before you attach a negative context to a situation, Tate suggests pausing and asking yourself what actually happened. “Go to the facts,” she says. “What can you observe and quantify? What actually happened? Sometimes it’s difficult to do this by yourself. This is where another colleague or trusted work friend or manager can help.”
It helps to understand the individual styles employees have so you can give interactions more context. Tate says there are four distinct productivity styles:
- Prioritizers: Logical, analytical, and data-oriented people who are focused on goals and outcomes.
- Planners: Organized individuals who thrive with structure, make plans, and want to talk about the details.
- Arrangers: Supportive, relationship-driven team members who work best when they form connections.
- Visualizers: Big-picture thinkers who want minimal details and visual imagery.
When you identify a colleague’s style, you can better understand how they work to avoid misunderstandings.
“Email is a great place to look for clues,” says Tate. For example, a prioritizer doesn’t want to chitchat; their email will be succinct, direct, and to the point. A planner will ask about details and deadlines, and their email may look like project plans with bullets and numbers. Supportive coworkers are easy to spot. They usually start their email with a greeting, like “Good morning” or “Happy Monday.” And a visualizer will email at the last minute, often apologizing for short deadlines.
Adjust your communication and expectations
“Applying a one-size-fits-all approach without respect to the nuances of colleagues and how they work can ultimately lead to miscommunication that can create conflict,” says Tate. “If I don’t think you respect me, I might be disrespectful to you. This can turn into a cascading event.”
For example, if you have a visualizer coworker who doesn’t meet a deadline, you might tell yourself a story that they don’t value your time. Or if you see someone looking to the side during a video conference, you may think they’re not paying attention when they’re really just taking notes.
While most of us follow the Golden Rule—treat others the way we want to be treated—fundamentally it’s flawed, says Tate.
“Not everyone sees the world as we do,” she says. “One person may want to spend the first 10 minutes of a Zoom meeting chatting about Netflix or what they’re cooking. For them, they need connection before content. Other folks just want to get to the agenda. To them, that chatting is a waste of their time and can be seen as disrespectful.”
Instead, Tate suggests adopting the “Platinum Rule,” treating others the way they want to be treated.
“Accept that others may not work in the same way that you do, or that they might work differently and communicate differently,” she says. “Then consider shaping your communication to align with how that person works and thinks and communicates to build stronger relationships.”
The benefits are creating more authentic, positive relationships that have deeper understanding. In addition, productivity can increase on a team when people communicate clearly so that other people understand and can take action. You can also enhance productivity by eliminating misunderstanding that might take 15 emails to clear up, adds Tate.
Ideally, coworkers will recognize the productivity styles of each other, and ask questions or provide information in ways that help each individual work to their best ability. “When both sides shift and adapt as they get to know each other, you can honor and respect each style,” she says. “This creates a mutually beneficial working relationship where both sides thrive.”