July 31st, 2018

Turmel: Bullying on Virtual Teams


The author of this guest blog, Wayne Turmel, is co-author of the new book, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. We know Wayne from appearances on his podcasts The Cranky Middle Manager when he was kind enough to showcase our early work at WBI.

The Long Distance Leader
“As the authors point out, the evolution of remote work is unlikely to revert. Leadership training, if any is even given these days, has to take into account the remote workers paradigm. This book fills that void. Leadership of people unseen can be a cold, easily aggressive endeavor. Bullying likely accompanies situations where in-person communication cues are absent. Eikenberry and Turmel rightly prioritize the role of people skills which is often minimized as “soft skills.” In remote leadership, the key is to achieve outcomes through others by overcoming barriers posed by technology without settling for mastery of those tools alone. The skills are not natural. For example, the authors implore leaders to forego a need to control and personal preferences in favor of an orientation toward the team, tailoring communications to maximize receptivity by them. They must be deliberately learned. The clear instructions in The Long Distance Leader provide the essential blueprint for success for leaders and teams. Bullying is preventable by skilled remote leaders.

Key features of the book I admire: (1) the proper balance of technology tools and caring for people, (2) calling for leaders to shelve their personal style in favor of tailoring communication with the team driven by team needs, (3) the call for leaders to unselfishly abandon their need to control others (at the heart of workplace bullying), and (4) that leadership is an earned position of trust rather than a position on an org chart.”

Gary Namie, PhD

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Bullying on Virtual Teams
by Wayne Turmel

Usually, when people think of workplace bullies, they think of those with whom they share a workplace. Physical intimidation and threats come immediately to mind. Working from home often sounds like a tempting way to avoid such situations. But as we know from far too many examples, cyber-bullying is common. Just because you don’t share a cube-farm or a shop floor doesn’t mean you can’t be a victim of a workplace bully.


To be sure, working remotely and being connected electronically means that the ways in which negative interactions happen are different. Some of the most common bad behavior on remote or virtual teams include:

Exclusion – not inviting people to certain conference calls or meetings, or including them on vital information such as group emails and the like.


Withholding critical information. This can be as innocent as a simple “out of sight out of mind” example, or can be the first step to actively sabotaging someone’s work or reputation.


Gossip and lying are common methods of controlling other people and cutting them off from support or aid.


Active hostility. This can take the form of belittling people on virtual meetings and conference calls, shutting down their contributions in front of others. It can also mean sending threatening texts or Instant messages.


The same ability to write horrible things without having to be in physical proximity to the victim that enables people to cyber-bullies and trolls free reign apply at work. When you don’t have to look the victim in the eye, and can maintain anonymity, it’s more likely such behavior will occur.


A 2005 study at DePaul University by Alice Stuhlmacher revealed that when people didn’t know each other well but worked in a virtual environment (they were a name on an email distribution list or a disembodied voice on a conference call) there was increase in negative behaviors. These included lying, withholding information, escalating threats and social exclusion.


So what is an effective Long-Distance Leader supposed to do? Our role is to create a safe, productive workplace for every member of the team. The challenge when we aren’t in the same physical location is recognizing the signs that such behavior is taking place, and facilitating steps to halt it. The leader needs to assess their team and identify bullying behavior, address the behavior and restore trust in the team.


In many ways, working remotely allows you to spot the most obvious examples of harassment. Abusive or inappropriate criticism on conference calls, team meetings and email are often obvious and jump out at us. The challenge for many of us is that we want to avoid conflict (after all, the bully is probably not a pleasant person to confront) and it is far easier to avoid direct face to face discussion and settle for weak, ineffective corrective measures. How is that strongly worded email working for you?


Whether we notice the harassing behavior ourselves, or it’s brought to our attention by the victim or others, it’s incumbent on leaders to investigate and then address such behavior directly. Failure to do so can poison the entire team dynamic.


When trust is broken on a team (virtual or co-located) it can be difficult to reestablish. This is true of trust between employees, but also between the victim of the bullying and their manager, who they looked to for protection that wasn’t there. In The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership, we have a 3-point trust model that may help.

Trust model

Trust is established when three factors are all true: there’s proof that everyone is aligned around purpose and intent, there’s proof that each person is competent, and proof that they are motivated positively. If any of these are out of alignment trust suffers.


The challenge on remote teams is that people may not have visibility to each other’s work. For example, if someone is quiet on conference calls, or not very good at articulating their ideas, it’s easy to dismiss the quality of their work. We may not give them credit for the quality of work they deserve. As a leader are you making it clear that they do good work and have your support? Are you sharing those thoughts with the team?


As effective leaders who want to create a non-threatening environment, we need to take the time to listen for signs of trouble, not ignore them when they arise, and actively help the team gain the positive input about their co-workers that eliminate many of the seeds of bullying. Often the bully is the most vocal and outwardly social person, while the victim is seldom heard. A manager who is rushed or distracted may not pick up on the distress signals until it is too late.


When the actions of team members rise to actionable levels, we can’t let distance get in the way. We must be proactive in addressing both the behavior itself and the measurable actions to halt it.

Wayne TurmelWayne Turmel is the co-founder of The Remote Leadership Institute and the author of many books, including ATD’s 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations. Wayne and Kevin Eikenberry have written the authoritative guide to remote leadership, The Long Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership.


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This entry was posted on Tuesday, July 31st, 2018 at 12:08 pm and is filed under Advice for Employers, Commentary by G. Namie, Employers Doing Good, Media About Bullying, Print: News, Blogs, Magazines, Related Phenomena. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.



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