A colleague and close friend of mine told me some time ago about a virtual training session she had delivered to a small group of participants which she unquestioningly categorised as ‘my worst ever virtual training nightmare’.
Sharing the story with a fair selection of groans and head-shaking at what she saw as her own incompetence, Mary proceeded to reveal how she had, in the aforementioned ‘nightmare’ session, run a video which she thought would trigger some interesting ideas to her small group of senior trainers about intercultural communication.
The film clip, which had actually been in circulation on You Tube for some time, showed an elderly Indian woman sitting at the roadside and selling spices, in a conversation with a much younger man from a European background. In the sequence shown, the man shows his surprise and admiration for the woman, who, it turns out, is 100 years old and still making a living selling her produce daily without any assistance.
At a certain point, the man gives the ancient street seller money, and then offers to buy everything she has. The woman responds by patting him on the head, and he seems visibly moved by her obviously impressive resilience and determination to keep making her living at such an advanced age.
So far, so good. However, while my friend had intended to show this as a somewhat heart-warming and engaging example of an unexpected connection across the divide of national cultures, gender and age, when she asked for reactions from the group it was apparent that at least half her participants perceived the film clip quite differently.
While some felt that the film showed the centenarian street merchant as powerful and in control, others expressed their irritation with the film’s ‘patronising and undermining message that money cures all evils’, and felt that she was actually being humiliated by the gestures of the much younger man in the conversation.
‘People were practically shouting at each other, and no one was listening to anyone ’ my friend moaned to me. ‘You could hardly hear yourself think. I had to abandon the plan for the session as we ran out of time. How could I have got it so badly wrong?’ she said.
When I asked Mary what happened next, after a few moments reflection she told me that the energy for the rest of the training session had actually been unexpectedly high. ‘Even the introverts in the group were speaking up for once, people whose voices I’d hardly heard at all before this’ she said. ‘I was quite surprised, even if they were only talking to get their point of view across, and there was a lot of interruption going on. Still, I suppose it was better than them just sitting in silence as usual.’
Ashridge academic and virtual communication expert Ghislaine Caulat speaks of the extent to which, in the audio and web-based environment, ‘deadlines and goal-driven meetings offer little room for the messy, loose, animated conversations that help develop human connection and the all-important personal touch that that is important in developing intimacy’. In face to face conversation, people interrupt each other, disagree, speak over one another, hold widely differing points of view, and yet, despite this, usually continue to function effectively together as a project group or team.
Why then was my friend so concerned about the unexpectedly heated, and varied reactions she got to the video in her online session? After a few more seconds thought, Mary answered: ‘Well, I felt I’d lost control of the session. It just wasn’t going to plan. It was chaos.’
One of the learnings from our experience is that when team leaders work remotely across distance for the first time, their chief concern is that they will lose control of the process and speed by which tasks are fulfilled, and therefore will ultimately be unable to manage the team members’ performance effectively.
In some cases, this concern about loss of control becomes so dominant that previously relaxed team leaders appear to transform overnight into micro-managing remote bosses, contacting their team members almost every few hours to get a progress report.
Ironically, this stance seems to serve to lower performance more than a ‘hands off’ approach, because it suggests a lack of faith in the individual team members’ ability to get the job done without the kind of regular supervision that is enabled by close physical presence, but utterly impossible when working remotely.
This desperate wish to ‘keep control at all costs’ and ‘stick to the script’ can also dominate live online training.
We explored how Mary’s style as a facilitator had impacted on the group in the training programme, and it turned out that her wish to provide strong content and ‘expert information’ on certain topics had led to a somewhat presentational ‘monologic’ style where interaction between group members was strictly limited.
Was it possible that the dissonance caused by the provocative video had actually created a stronger human bond and emotional connection between the trainees than the carefully structured approach Mary had previously applied, because it had finally provided a space for energetic disagreement and unheard voices to ‘take the floor’?
In future sessions, Mary agreed to set herself some goals to develop her so what over-careful, constrained style as facilitator. They included:
Virtual coffee time and ‘Check In’ ritual: setting aside time for a relaxed welcome and update for all participants, where the session opened early for sociable chat, and everyone was invited to share some personal information as well as professional reflections before focussing on the agenda.
In this way, people got to know each other better and to develop trusting relationships and greater transparency between group members as a whole.
Inclusive, ‘messy’ conversation and debate: Instead of muting participants upon entry to the session as she had previously done (in order to minimise disruption and background noise) Mary openly invited the whole group to engage in free-flowing conversation throughout it, and to raise questions aloud rather than via the Chat Space.
This meant that she had to minimise time for one-way presentations, but the benefit was that the group learned from each other more, and spent more time actively discussing (and disagreeing about) ideas than passively listening to Mary present them.
Encourage playfulness and creativity: As participants got to know each other better, they pushed Mary to introduce a variety of methods to stimulate their thinking and fire their imaginations.
These included quizzes, memory games, mini projects, working in pairs, team ‘murals’ or visually connecting ideas via drawings on whiteboards, sung activities and others.
The creative techniques appealed to different personality preferences and learning styles and often led to passionate discussion and high enjoyment as well, quite frequently, as loud laughter. Mary started to notice that not only were all group members turning up for the sessions (previously attendance had been patchy), but they were even joining a bit early in order to have more time to talk to others in the group.
Making space for private ‘storytelling’ and discussion: enabling pairs to chat by text throughout the session, and introducing ‘breakout room’ facilities made private conversations possible, where personal stories could be exchanged and values discussed in a more intimate environment. Introverted group members were particularly enthusiastic about these ‘small group’ activities.
Planning for ‘creative chaos’: one of the biggest learning points for Mary was that she did not need to create a structure for her online learning programme where every single second was filled with activity. This was quite a tough point to take on, as someone who had always prided herself on following a close agenda.
However, she soon found that dropping her need to tightly control the flow of the session, and to enable questions and creative exploration that went ‘off piste’ from the plan, usually meant that the group learned more because they felt far more involved, emotionally engaged, and enjoyed themselves more.
I saw Mary a few months after describing the ‘online training nightmare’. I asked her how it was going, and she replied: ‘The group have sort of taken over. I occasionally make a comment and introduce an activity, but the process is more led by them these days.’
She looked at me, and smiled. ‘I never thought I’d say this, but I’m actually loving it. And the feedback is great. It’s all about being brave enough to let go.’
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© Jude Tavanyar 2019