The Distance Lens Blog

Playing well is a vital skill at any age

Hold hands, & stick together = playing well

For many of us, September is when our children head back to school wearing a backpack full of new pencils, erasers, notebooks, and folders. We attend Open House to meet our child’s new teachers and to understand the expectations for the new academic year. Regardless of your child’s grade, the constant theme is one of collaboration and teamwork. For the elementary levels, this goal is shared in Robert Fulghum’s poem “All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten” as ‘play fair’, and is outlined in a high school’s 21st-century learning framework as a specific skill.

Either way, collaboration, and teamwork are important skills for students to practice before entering the workforce, as they will need to rely on other people to succeed. It also serves as a reminder to those who have many years of work experience (and know the trials and tribulations of teamwork) that teamwork skills need to be continuously honed for mastery. Research by Alex “Sandy” Pentland found that the most important predictor of a team’s success is its communication patterns. These patterns are as significant as all other factors – intelligence, personality, and talent – combined.

At Bridging Distance, we found similar themes in our work. Our research shows that advanced communication dynamics in virtual teams significantly improved their ability to work well together and produce results faster. This is evident in successful virtual teams. By helping build explicit processes and critical skills, members stay energized and engaged in their work together. These processes center on getting the right information to the right people at the right time, via the right technology; it means expectations for posting documents and messages in a repository. This allows each team member to find what they need when they need it, without searching cluttered inboxes at a later date. It also means defining what types of situations are more urgent, and require a more immediate response. Posting updates and status allows communication dynamics to be a dialog about the significance of the information. These interactions tend to more interesting, and therefore more engaging to team members. It means the right people attend meetings, while those who only need to have updates can confidently and respectfully spend their time elsewhere.

Our research also shows that people with excellent digital communication habits are significantly happier in their jobs, therefore more productive. Managing digital interruptions is key; balancing responding to others versus staying present in the moment means you can be fully attentive to your current activity. Being curious about the environment of others paves the way to learning what you don’t know. Teaching leaders how to foster rapport across Distance enables them to motivate Millennials, communicate with a multicultural team, and respond quickly to change.

Technology dehumanizes relationships; our work helps re-humanize them. We use a simple tool for diagnosing root cause in digital workplace environment called The Distance Lens™. Viewing workplace performance through Interpersonal, Organizational, Physical, and Technological differences allow us to provide solutions to fix problem areas without inadvertently breaking ones that work well.

Bridging Distance provides behavioral-based solutions for companies to manage existing or anticipated distance complexities that impact employee performance. Through a combination of proprietary assessments, evidenced-based workshops, and customized coaching, Bridging Distance develops and maximizes employee engagement to accelerate productivity, profitability and employee retention.

So, heed Robert’s advice from Kindergarten and “when you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.” Partnering with Bridging Distance will build your pathways to move forward together.

What's the Frequency, Kenneth?


Reducing Audio Feedback Across the Global Pond

As many global teams know all too well, staying on the same wavelength in video conferencing—despite all of our modern technologies—can remain a herculean effort. In a world getting increasingly smaller, a bad virtual connection reminds us of the distance that still remains between us. For teams working against great cultural and geographical distances a good audio connection can make the difference between teams working effectively together or simply wasting each others’ time.

In a recent Bridging Distance consultation with a globally distributed team we encountered typical feedback troubles.

Our first transatlantic meeting with this organization consisted of virtual attendees in Cambridge, Massachusetts; northern Massachusetts; New Jersey; and Paris, France. As the meeting opened in Cambridge, the attendees a mere hour away were greeted with static, feedback, and white noise, though the attendees in Paris heard them with crystal clarity. Although Cambridge, Massachusetts, considers itself to have a real European flair, this did nothing to facilitate communication with the actual Europeans. What happened? More importantly, what steps need to be taken so that everyone can participate fully?

The following are three tips to ensure communication clarity across distance

mute button

 1.  The Mute Button is Your Friend.

Use it.  When not speaking, mute your computer (especially if you are taking notes, as the even quiet clicking of a keyboard is amplified and broadcast to everyone).  Muting is often overlooked as “too basic” to make a difference, but even if you think you are in a quiet location, ambient noise can be the death knell to a productive virtual meeting.  Just be sure to unmute your microphone before speaking.

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2.  Wear Headphones (Not Just Earbuds!)

Headphones with microphones will reduce feedback, such as a Bluetooth or even the headphones that are included with the iPhone.

the screamEchoes are deadly.

With headphones, not only will you be able to hear your co-participants but they will be able to hear you!

If there is more than one person physically with you during the conference you may want to invest in a Polycom Calling Kit, or similar device.

The Polycom computer calling kit enables the phone to work with the Polycom PVX desktop video conferencing application, serving as the microphone and speaker for desktop video calls. Polycom Calling Kits will heighten the level of professionalism and take your business to the next level.

Polycom also makes a more cost-effective speaker and microphone device to plug into your computer. They are each optimized for different software and computer configurations, so be careful to purchase the correct one for your needs.

While Polycom may be the gold standard, the Yamaha PJP-20UR Web Conference Microphone Speaker is an example of a plug and play echo-cancelling device that seems simpler to use than the PolyCom devices.

3.  Limit Computers / Audio Sources to One Per Room.

business-woman-in-office-with-computer-talks-on-headsetThough it may be tempting to crowd around one screen when you have multiple people at one location, having more than one computer in a room increases feedback as the microphones pick up what other team members are saying. This is especially important if you do not have headphones and do not mute your computer, thus disregarding our previous expert advice.

While the difficulties may seem daunting and at times frustrating, audio and video conferencing is worth the effort.  Being able to see and hear each other clearly across great distances will lead to a greater sense of community and better collaboration across the board and across the world.

Question for readers: Have any advice or Pet Peeves when it comes to audio / video conferencing?


Death by PowerPoint


We’ve all sat through those countless boring PowerPoint presentations, in which the presenter drones on without the slightest ability to engage his or her audience, completely unaided by the graphics shown. You’ve seen it: too much text in awkward clashing colors with gimmicky graphics included for there own sake. Unfortunately, we can’t simply blame the tool and be done with it. PowerPoint isn’t simply the enemy, but a bad PowerPoint presentation does nothing to bridge the distance between the presenter and the audience.

powerpoint1Back in November, among the “sensitive” data that was hacked from Sony allegedly due to North Korea’s upset over the film “The Interview” were some painfully bad PowerPoint presentations (OK, maybe just mediocre) such as the sparse and generic “key themes” from the 2013 film Grown Ups 2. You may wonder how presentations on something as theoretically exciting as making a movie, could possibly be rendered so painfully boring. [Queue bad PowerPoint slide].

While we don’t intend to play film critic and weigh the merits of this almost-certain cinematic masterpiece, this slide of the themes of Grown Ups 2 make it look anything but.

Here are three guidelines for making a presentation which is both textually and visually engaging.

1.  Content is Key

There is nothing grown up in the nebulous abstract nouns in Grown Ups 2–if that’s the point of the film, then in that sense the slide succeeds.

Instead, know what you want to say before you attempt to put it in visual form–Don’t let the templates dictate the form. Make your content engaging through narrative form, rather than focusing in on minute details. Do you remember story time from kindergarten? As much as we like to think we’re not still a group of sniveling children, we all do still like a good story. Not only that, people pay better attention when there’s a plot arc. Stick to the formula of beginning, middle, and end. Think: what is it that you want to convey? How can you present it in a concise, compelling manner?  How can you avoid simply listing nouns either in a list or scattered as in the following example?


2.  Less Text

To segue to the next point, simply presenting a list of categories is scattered and distracting. People read faster than they hear, so short, to-the-point text will help give your audience a sense of what you will be talking about, without distracting from what you’re actually saying by being too long and convoluted–like this sentence. (Though we also ought to note that bullet points are very passé and not visually interesting). Each of those topics in the previous slide could use their own slide, in which the points — from “beverages” to “video games” are fleshed out. Whether these points are worth making in the first place, we can’t help Sony with.  The following, “Grown Up Kids” slide, also has too much text. The presenter should have simply put the pictures on the slide and explained this innate marketing ploy when talking instead of committing it to print.



3. Focus on Design

Aesthetics matter. The trend among companies right now is sleek and clean and minimal, and let’s face it, the Sony presentations are not.

Sony’s PowerPoints look trite, and overly “PowerPoint-y.” This is not to lay blame with the program itself. PowerPoint can be made to look fresh and clean, but it may do to sidestep it altogether, as it can be so easy to slide into that generic model provided by the preset templates we are all so familiar with. Be original–it’s more interesting!

A simple cosmetic fix may just involve changing programs, though, granted, that doesn’t address the root problem of a monotonous presentation.

Here are some alternative presentation programs that may breathe some much-needed life into an otherwise moribund presentation:

Prezi is an increasingly popular alternative to PowerPoint. Prezi is especially effective due to its non-linear and highly visual approach.

For Mac users or those entirely PowerPoint-averse, our friends at Apple have created a competing presentation software of their own, Keynote, which many people find easier to use. Keynote’s main advantage is that its graphics and images provide a fresh alternative to the overused PowerPoint visuals.  Keynote’s ability to create powerful and beautiful presentations on and for iOS mobile devices is rather remarkable.



As with everything–it’s all about presentation. It is easy to criticize Sony’s rather dated-looking slides. Harder is to create a compelling narrative that will engage your audience. Make your presentation program a useful tool for you in doing so–not a crutch. There is a way to escape the framework of PowerPoint and break out of the tedium that can be so pervasive. Let your content take the fore and let these presentation tools help you do it!

Question for readers:  What’s your best “trick” for creating engaging presentations?

Friends Helping Friends

Every now and then someone needs a helping hand. Sometimes, the ask is big and the answer is difficult. Other times, the ask and answer are both easy. This is such a time.

We are trying to qualify for a $100,000 small business grant from LinkedIn and Chase Bank.  The catch is that we need 250 votes in order to be considered for one of the 20 grants being awarded. We’re on our way to getting those votes, but we need your help.

To help us out, simply click here to vote.

There is no catch, and your information will not be captured; but, you do need a FaceBook account in order for the verification process to know that you are a human and not a robot or my eccentric aunt who has 27 email addresses and was thinking she could vote 27 times (sorry, Auntie.)

Voting ends on June 19, so please vote right now.

Thank you so very much. Let us know how we can help you out someday,

Stefanie, Chris, and the rest of the gang here at Bridging Distance.

P.S. In case you missed it, here’s the link to vote!

Global Village: Signs of Conflict in Your Global Team

By: Sam Heiter and Mary Lou Jurgens


Working together on a project may take a village, but dealing with conflict definitely takes the whole village. So what do you do when that village is scattered across the globe?

Recognizing conflict in the virtual arena is harder than for an in-person team, but all the more necessary to diagnose. Given the distances between people, misunderstandings proliferate more easily, virtual team members have an increased chance of miscommunicating via methods such as email, and there’s a decreased chance of building trust. Further, by the time a conflict amongst virtual team members manifests itself to the team leader, the root of the problem has a long trail, which has long lain dormant. Such conflict silences valuable opinions on the project at hand, decreases job fulfillment, and hinders productivity.

Within an in-person team, you can immediately sense when someone is being ostracized, even slightly, by the body language and actions of others. There is, however, carryover of these skills to a virtual team setting. For example, in both in-person and virtual meetings, perhaps a certain member isn’t asked to participate with the same frequency as in the past; or when they do speak, other members’ eyes roll or their remarks are met with steely silence. If you are observant and aware that a change in participation habits is a red flag, you can observe that change; but what is the equivalent “virtual eye roll” in a distributed team? The virtual eye roll is highly subtle, and begins with taking note of the way your team typically interacts with one another.

A virtual team leader must be ever vigilant of nascent signs of barriers going up between team members. Signs of virtual ostracism include individuals’ names suddenly being left off of relevant group emails; or suddenly a lot of extra people being added to the “cc” section of direct email to said person.  The action of adding names to the “cc” list often indicates that the sender is putting up a barrier between themselves and the recipient of the email, and is seeking out witnesses to communications that cannot be avoided. The sender may be feeling pressured or intimidated in some way, or simply so frustrated they want to bring others into help.  Changes in emailing patterns is a red flag that virtual leaders need to be aware of, moreso than leaders of traditional teams who have the added advantage of direct observation.

As barriers develop, people tend to create new or “secret” communication paths to circumvent direct interaction with whomever this barrier is with. This could take the form of an email thread or discussion, about which the rest of the team simply isn’t informed; or when questions are asked about someone’s work indirectly instead of asking them directly. This is a red flag that often takes the village to recognize as the leader may not be privy to these paths.  It is important, however, especially as decisions are made without including all the expected and relevant participants. 

In virtual meetings, some signs of barriers are exactly the same as in face-to-face meetings — people aren’t called on as frequently as the situation warrants, or as frequently as they used to be. When the person in question finally does offer an opinion, they may be interrupted, ignored, or talked over. On the other side of the barrier, signs exist in the form of the ostrasized person talking more or less in a meeting — they may feel compelled to get everything out in a rush, or to withdraw from participating. Their tone of voice often changes, and those changes depend on the personality behind them. Some people become less confidant and softer, more questioning in tone; other become more aggressive or sarcastic. While changes in tone are relatively easy to pick up on, the tricky part in a virtual meeting is to identify when the changes in participation are deliberate and when they are due to technology. A savvy virtual leader is aware of when technology difficulties are at fault, and when the pattern of behavior is different enough to raise a red flag, and to investigate further.

Technology increases the difficulty of recognizing conflict between virtual teammates. Beyond virtual meetings, technology issues may be used to cover up sub-par work behaviors created by someone experiencing conflict; thus, a disaffected member many not follow through on commitments or deadlinesWhile we all experience technology glitches and setbacks, if these problems are cited as an excuse disproportionately often, it may be an indication of disengagement due to a conflict-driven barrier going up. 

Finally, communication is the lifeblood of any virtual team. Any communication quiet-down—or “going dark”—can be a death knell to team cohesiveness and therefore productivity. The astute virtual leader must know how to interpret people’s silence. Is silence due to deep concentration — someone immersing themselves in their task — or is it something else? Whatever the root cause, silence must be heard and understood by both the leader and the team as a whole.

In a high functioning virtual team, a team leader’s role can’t be that of a micro-manager. To combat conflict proactively, a team leader must foster a working environment that encourages open dialogue on points of disagreement; and therefore, quashes unnecessary conflict before it can take hold. Leaders must not only learn to recognize these signs themselves, but talk openly about them with the entire team. Through careful observation, the virtual leader and the virtual team will become aware of the warning signs of conflict and be better able to investigate early to determine whether there is an underlying issue that needs to be addressed.

Question for readers: What are signs of barriers in your virtual team? What did you do to overcome?




Bridging Conflict in Global Teams

tug of war

Virtual Team Leadership is Different

By: Sam Heiter, Mary Lou Jurgens, Stefanie Heiter

Is a virtual conflict still a conflict? If it is only there virtually it is easier to ignore. Ignoring virtual conflict, however, makes it all the more insidious and more necessary for leaders to recognize and address.  Conflict in any team decreases morale but on a virtual team, it also leads to barriers between teammates and these barriers lead to lowered productivity. Our globalized world has led to many advances but the increased presence of virtual work can also lead to greater potential conflict among team members.  Today’s leader must understand the fundamental differences between leading a traditional team and leading a virtual team and adjust their methods accordingly.

Managing conflict is especially difficult for virtual teams because of the differences in geography, culture, and context. Differences in culture and the problems brought on by physical distance between team members compounds the problems teams already face.  For example, communication is inherently less frequent and less effective across large distances, and therefore, team relationships form weaker ties. As technology often dehumanizes relationships, leaders of virtual teams must actively work to re-humanize them, and help team members to overcome the barriers distance puts up.communication

When team members are scattered across many different time zones it makes synchronous discussions significantly more difficult, as everyone has their own “normal” office hours that frequently don’t match up with others’.  More importantly, however, distance removes a sense of shared context so team members are less aware of issues their coworkers are having.  While it is far easier to ignore this distance and the subsequent barriers, successful virtual leaders know that communication efforts need to be redoubled and team members need to be encouraged to spend the time to get to know their virtual teammates.

What is context? Context is the extent to which the team environment and structure supports the “how” of working together. It includes having the right people on the team; clarifying roles; trust; shared sense of vision; and purposeful inclusion of every team member. Context is the glue that holds every kind of team together, and without which, a virtual team cannot sustain alignment or productivity. As in-person team often shares and understands its fundamental context on a subconscious level. The process of osmosis enables people to adjust their own work and vision according to the work and vision of the people around them. A shared context is not possible on a virtual team without deliberate and purposeful attention from the leader.

Context and conflict are partners in crime in the virtual team setting.

An astute virtual leader must approach virtual leadership differently. Virtual team members need to be able to articulate their specific roles and need to stay formally aligned. Leaders must pay attention because conflict is not necessarily brought to attention in a virtual environment. Once a conflict does manifest itself the underlying causes will have been festering long before the outbreak.

When conflict does rather inevitably arise and come to the attention of the leader there is a three-fold approach towards conflict resolution, which has worked for our leadership clients in the past: First, perform triage: assess the problems and determine which ones take priority and actions to resolve it. Second, analyze the current conflict and establish a “lessons learned.” What went wrong in the first place? What have we learned from this? Third, after the underlying problems are understood, steps can be taken to address what can be done better in the future to mitigate conflict. For example, if your team was out of alignment because each person had a different vision of what the end-goal was, establish frequent check-in times to be sure that everyone shares the same vision as time goes on.

Virtual teams, when properly led, can feel just as close as the next office away, but leaders must be attentive to potential points of conflict. Good virtual leaders need to adjust their methods to managing the sometimes sensitive needs of a virtual team.

Next week we’ll take a closer look at recognizing conflict in virtual teams.

Research Opportunity for Virtual leaders and virtual workers:  Please take a minute to help us out by taking our super-short survey (pinky promise — it’s short!)!


Finally, question for Readers: What are your experiences with conflict within the virtual team setting?

Tax Time for Telecommuters


A few last-minute things to keep in mind

Though perhaps you are reading this in lieu of actually DOING your taxes, if you are a telecommuter these tips just might help. With the tax deadline looming, here are a few things to keep in mind and some deductions you may not know about:

1.  Home Office Deduction

2e0b5dd04e985fb995cce05092e64df2The IRS allows you to take deductions for your home office — whether you are a freelancer OR an employee.

You don’t necessarily need a dedicated room as long as you have a consistent, delineated area that is the SOLE place you do your work; it must not be used for any other purpose.

If your work requires you to go out and meet with clients, for example, and you spend much of your time out of the office, you can still claim a home office deduction as long as you perform administrative tasks there regularly.

In recent years, the IRS has allowed for a simplified home office deduction: $5 per square foot up to 300 square feet or $1,500. Otherwise, you must calculate what percentage of your home’s overall space is taken up by your office to determine your deduction. Office related expenses can also be deducted: office supplies, the relevant percentage of utilities such as phone, internet, and heating.

2.  Travel Expenses

Auto and public transportation expenses can both be deducted but only when traveling between one workplace and another–this does not include your typical commuting costs from home to work. It is important to keep meticulous records. However, if you haven’t been keeping track faithfully you can also take a percent deduction based on how much of your travel expenses are business related.




3.  The 2% Floor

Home office and other business expenses are only deductible if they are above 2% of your adjusted gross income. If your total business expenses add up to less than that you are ineligible for deductions. The IRS defines allowable deductions as things “ordinary and necessary,” such as dues to a professional organization  or relevant magazine subscriptions.



4. State-to-state Taxes

A telecommuter who is able to work from anywhere in today’s mobile workforce may be located in a different state from that in which the employer is based. This can make things unexpectedly tricky. A few states, among them New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Nebraska, all have laws that tax earnings of nonresidents, and many other states seem to be leaning in that direction as well. So be aware that extra taxes may be required of you. While there are many boons to telecommuting, avoiding state taxes isn’t one of them!

While this may seem like an oxymoron–Happy Tax day! Or make it a happy tax week if you’d like to file for an extension. Either way, hope you don’t find it too taxing.

Please share your tax tips!



When Only a Few are Virtual


Meeting When Not All are Present

You’re at a meeting–well, virtually. You’ve dialed in to a meeting with 6 or so members of your team who work physically together. They are sitting around the conference table with the squawk box (Polycom may be the technical term for it) in the center. The meeting starts out orderly but as the meeting progresses it devolves into clamour as spirited members attempt to speak over one another. Though it may be a productive discussion for those physically present, for you as a virtual participant it’s too hard to follow who’s talking, let alone jump in, so you retreat to finishing work tasks, checking email, scanning Facebook, or playing Tetris on your phone.

This scene may seem all too familiar.

The internet is replete with tips for running in-person meetings and for running virtual meetings. So what do you do when only some of your participants are virtual — when you have both in-person and remote attendees? All too often, what happens in such a “blended meeting” is that the virtual participants struggle to keep up with those who are physically present. Once you have even one person dialing in, in order for that member to be able to participate fully, and for your meeting to successfully accomplish its goals, you must understand that your meeting needs to be approached differently. A blended meeting is neither a virtual meeting, nor an in-person meeting. These “somewhere in the middle” meetings require their own framework; otherwise, your meeting will turn into an in-person meeting with a few lost souls trapped hopelessly in the ether!

There are different schools of thought on how best to approach a blended meeting. One school dictates that colocated team members should stay at their desks and dial in, even though it may seem easier to gather together around one speaker in a conference room. This levels the playing field for all participants. However, another school of thought is that forcing in-office team members to attend virtually would ruin the “synergy” or “juju” (they’re synonyms, trust me) of the meeting; and therefore the onus is on the virtual attendees to do their best to stay engaged with the rest of the group.

Promoting a meeting environment hospitable to virtual participants requires a concerted effort from all members. The most important thing a team can do is agree together on rules of engagement AND commit to follow them. Begin with a brainstorm of what rules ought to be followed for your particular team. Below are some best practices to get you started.

 1. Alternate the meeting format

The best solution is for the blended meeting to alternate between being conducted entirely virtually and conducted with both colocated and virtual attendees. Alternate between conducting your meetings with everyone dialing in, and conducting them with only the remote people dialing in. This will help everyone to understand the difficulties of being virtual, and this understanding will improve all meetings.

2. Eliminate side conversations.

When people at a meeting indulge in a conversation of their own, one that is unrelated to the matter at hand, one that the virtual attendees cannot see, it leads to feelings of exclusion. If virtual attendees don’t understand the context of comments, there are more opportunities for misinterpretation, especially if there is not a sufficient amount of trust amongst team members or they do not yet know each other well. Furthermore, side conversations are simply distracting!

3. Say your name before saying your piece — Every time.

While it may seem tedious, especially if the team has been working together a long time and know each other well, saying your name before you speak will immensely help virtual participants keep track of the unfolding conversation. It requires a fair bit of mindfulness because, as meetings progress, participants are inclined to dispense with the formality to the detriment of those who cannot identify the speaker.

4. Work — actively — to include those not in the room.

Mindfulness is key. Be aware when virtual attendees have been silent too long and elicit their feedback. Actively call on them by name. Engage them. Leave silence and space for them to talk. Articulate what’s happening in the room for them: who’s leaving, who’s arriving. Consider sending them a picture of what is happening. 

5. Provide name tags.

Place name tents or some other sort of name tag of the virtual attendees on the conference table (with photos is ideal). This helps to remind those who are in the room that the virtual participants are there, too.

6. Revisit your rules of engagement.

Pull out those agreements every 4 to 6 weeks and see if you are really following them and if not, why not? Change them if you need to — the key is to keep the conversation going.  Working together to establish your own rules of engagement is a good thing. Consider bringing in someone from the outside to help evaluate how you are doing.

If everyone actively works to include virtual participants and elicit their thoughts, they’ll have no more excuses to shut their eyes, mute their speakers, and power nap during the meetings.

P.S.  And just don’t rustle papers in front of the microphone!


Question for readers:  What suggestions do you have for running good blended meetings?


Before Hitting the Send Key


What you Need to Know about Cross-Cultural Emailing

Cultural understanding can make or break any team, but especially an international one. Cultural misunderstandings can drive irreparable wedges in relationships. Not only is it important in avoiding potentially expensive and embarrassing blunders but it is also important in building cohesive teams.

When reading the emails of people from different cultures, we do not have the luxury of being able to read their body language as we do face-to-face; therefore the precise meaning of their words is extremely important. This difficulty is amplified when the emailer is from a culture different from your own. Understanding the cultural context of their words is essential to your overall understanding of intent.

How Email Varies from Country to Country

First, be aware that people differ—that we don‘t all have the same perspectives, nor the same assumptions about actions and behaviors. What is polite and assumed in one country isn’t necessarily so in another. For example, Americans generally shoot off many emails quickly and casually, and are generally straight to the point; however, in much of Africa and South America,  it would be considered rude not to add a personal touch and to get down to business right away. Additionally, in countries like Germany, there are clearly delineated formal rules for business emails.

Language Pitfalls

It is paramount to be mindful of potentially confusing idioms, jargon, or too much slang. For Americans, this might mean avoiding phrases like “bite the bullet,” which might be taken too literally by nonnative speakers.

Confusion can occur even between native English speakers from different countries. For example, in the U.K., “To table the discussion” in the parliamentary sense is to lay a topic on the speaker’s table for discussion, while in the U.S. “to table the discussion” means to postpone it until later.

Many countries — but not all — love to use sports references in business–everything will be a “homerun.” People from countries where sports analogies are not the norm may wonder why they have to run home or devine no meaning from a “sticky wicket” reference — it is all but meaningless to those unfamiliar with the sport of cricket.

Generally, to avoid language misunderstanding, make what you think is implicit explicit. Double-check your wording for idiomatic phrases that may not be universally understood.  Don’t assume that your reader understands your metaphors or analogies.

Differences in Culture

Of course language is just a manifestation of the differences in cultures. There are High and Low Context cultures. In High Context cultures, messages have very little meaning without an understanding of the surrounding context. France is very high context culture–you need to understand the culture in order to understand the intent. While a non-French speaker may think they are being friendly by putting “merci” at the end of their email, to a French speaker it is a passive aggressive “thank you–now go forth and do my bidding.”

On the other hand, in Low Context cultures the meaning lies mostly in the message itself. In many English speaking countries, for example, as well as countries like Germany, Norway, or Sweden there is less need to read between the lines, as from a young age they are taught to say what they mean and communicate directly. However, a “yes” in a high-context culture like Japan does not imply a firm commitment but generally means “Yes, I understand.”

If email is the only point of contact you have with someone, and they commit a cultural faux pas, it can be harder to overlook and overcome when all that is seen is the email address and not the person behind that address.

It’s important to know what is appropriate to say and do given a person’s position within the company. Integral to this understanding is Power Distance–which anthropologist Geert Hofstede defines as the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organizations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally. In a Large Power Distance country, the distance between bosses and their subordinates is liable to be more significant, and must be especially observed.  For example, in many Asian cultures, subordinates are more deferential to their bosses and authority, so be careful not to address bosses in a too familiar manner.  On the other hand, in low distance countries like the Netherlands and the U.K., bosses are seen as more approachable “equals” and language may feel somewhat disrespectful or mutinous, if you are in a leadership position receiving communications, as it may be far less deferential than you may be accustomed to.

When emailing to Large Power Distance countries, bosses may need to give permission to subordinates, so they should not be contacted directly. At the very least, the supervisor should be CC’d in the email.

While acknowledging differences in manners and values be careful not to overgeneralize. These are people too, working within their own cultural context of assumptions and predispositions, just we as you are. Not all Americans eat fast food in the slowlane of the highway (credit: the late George Carlin). Be careful not to attribute one action of one person to an entire country.

To mitigate problems of traversing different cultures, be as overt as possible with your intentions. Assume benevolence and don’t assume that actions you find hostile to be ill-intended. Whenever possible ask for clarification! This is a trust building opportunity!

Once you learn how other cultures interact, you’ll see how stereotypes about “rudeness” and other misunderstandings just melt away.

Readers: Please share any experiences you have had with emailing or communicating with people from cultures other than your own! Thank you!

Virtual Leadership: Knowing When to Step Back


People don’t work for a company, they work for a person. Therefore, great care must be taken to foster interpersonal relationships between leaders and team members. In the virtual world that can be especially difficult because of the physical distance and the lessened ability to fully observe body language. Leaders must be able to engender trust between team members such that they can be trusted to work independently. Once trust can be firmly established between teams, a team leader will be able to step back with full confidence in his or her team.

Trust has several forms: “Transactional trust,” based on actions and deeds, can be developed by a good leader who follows through with tasks and commitments, thus encouraging team members to do so as well. “Relational trust,” based on interpersonal relationships, is harder to foster in the virtual environment, but is nonetheless important in creating a cohesive team.

In the virtual arena especially, leaders must accept that you don’t know what you don’t know. In other words, there are more variables and unknowns when dealing with global teams whose habits, customs, or expectations may be counter to yours. You may be surprised by the multitude of reactions that arise among team members from different cultures and backgrounds. A good leader knows which issues to address and which to step back from. For example, how important is it to be copied on every email sent? Or do you just need to know the end result?

So what is a virtual leader to do to bridge this distance and form the trusting bonds necessary to create a dynamic team?

1.  Know Thyself

Fundamentally, a virtual leader must live by the phrase “know thyself.” Good leadership requires introspection: in order to be an effective leader you have to understand your leadership style. Are you a micromanager? In a virtual environment you will have a hard time looking over your employees’ shoulders. Or, is your style more laissez-faire? While this may appear more suited to virtual leadership, you have to able to read what your team needs in order to know when to step in.

Knowing thyself entails knowing your values and what you want out of your team. Once you know what you want, you are more likely to express it clearly to them.

A good leader will practice what they preach: make yourself trustworthy so you can expect it from others.

2.  Know Thy People

In virtual conferences, check-in questions will help you get to know each team member on a human level, thus bridging the geographical distance separating you, while establishing relational trust. Knowing your team members on a personal level will help you understand better how to interact with them: giving direction, eliciting feedback, motivating them, etc. and will aid in establishing transactional trust. Furthermore, knowing your people is knowing what skills they bring to the table, helping you to lead them in a more advantageous manner.

Have your team earn your trust. Once your expectations have been made clear to them, they will be able to work to your specifications with greater success.

In order to work virtually there must be a large amount of reciprocal trust, which you as a leader are responsible for initiating.

3.  Know Thy Resources

You must accept that you can’t control everything: you have to embrace the differences between a virtual and co-located team. A virtual leader’s role is more to guide things, not control them. You are a resource to your team but not the sole resource. Ask yourself: have I done an adequate job of equipping my team? Do they know whom to reach out to when issues inevitably arise? This is even more important in the individually-driven virtual environment.

Often your role as a leader is knowing when to step back and allow your team to learn independence, knowing you’ve equipped them properly. Allow your team to risk failing. When you learn to step back it will allow your team members to learn and grow and become more independent. You may find that the adage “we learn wisdom from failure much more than from success” to be true.

When trust is well established between a team and their leader, the leader should be able to step back comfortably, trusting in his management of his team and in his team itself. Virtually, the best leader–having an understanding of his team and their abilities–will know when his leadership is needed or not. If you can rest assured that your team is capable and equipped from a skill and research perspective, your job as a leader will go a long way to being fulfilled.

Question for Readers: How do you know when to step back and when to step in when leading your virtual team?