Now that I’ve got your attention, I want to clarify. We need to be crystal clear about the impact words have on a listener’s ability to understand what we are saying. When I say “devastate”, I can’t assume that everyone reading this is going to respond in the same way. Label this what you will, but word choice and how you say something will impact your ability to influence someone to take action - the action you want them to take.
In a recent conversation I had with an Executive VP of R&D, he shared the impact that word choice had during a recent status meeting about their business. During the meeting, the Senior Director of Quality Systems shared the results of a recent third-party quality audit. The first words she said? “The results of the audit are devastating.” Needless to say, the COO, CEO and the Chairman of the Board (who is non-U.S. born with English as a second language) who were attending were alarmed. Not surprising. To them, this raised red flags that could impact deliverables and increase costs. The CEO instantly responded with, “We need to mount a full assault on this problem to avoid any impacts to our schedule.” The Chairman looked even more alarmed and proceeded to take over the meeting. What do we have happening here?
This is what we call a failure to communicate with the listener in mind. People listen with their own unique mindset and filters. One of the challenges in business meetings is the demographic makeup of the attendees and the failure to address it. Every demographic has language sensitivities worth considering if you are trying to ensure your team is going in the right direction and meeting business objectives. These differences in perspective get magnified during virtual team meetings.
As a leader, the ideas below can help you avert some of the unintended consequences of poorly thought out communications during your team meetings.
Acknowledge that gender impacts communication
I was recently asked to speak about virtual meeting management for a high potential team at CIO.com. The focus of the workshop was to explore the effect gender could have on virtual team meeting dynamics. One topic we discussed is the common criticism given to women in the workplace that they are “too emotional” when presenting problems or ideas. In contrast, men often set personal feelings aside and get the feedback that they don’t communicate their emotional investment or passion enough.
Let’s use the scenario we presented earlier. When the Quality Director used the word “devastating”, was she being “too emotional”? The answer is no! What she was expressing is her deep commitment and passion for the highest level of quality performance in the company. Luckily the VP knew this. His council to her after the meeting? Express the impact the audit results had on you personally and then quickly link it to how we get back on track. That might sound like, “We received the final audit results. I was extremely concerned and disappointed on my first review. You all know I am passionate about making sure we meet the highest quality standards. This has motivated my team to develop the following plan to correct the deficiencies with minimal impact on our current business plan.”
Can male colleagues be helped in the same way? Yes. By coincidence, the COO has been given the feedback that he is so unemotional in his delivery of information that he appears disengaged and not personally invested in the business. His perception? He doesn’t feel that way and he is making efforts to share some emotion when speaking with his team and others about key initiatives and challenges in the business.
As you can see, it is important to find ways to recognize and coach the strengths of all your team members regardless of gender.
Footnote: For more exploration of gender-based communication in the workplace, I recommend Barbara Annis and John Gray’s 2013 book, “Work with me.”
Set ground rules to manage the fluency gap
If there are virtual team members (employees, vendors, or partners) who are not fluent in the common spoken language of your company, you are going to have to set some ground rules. First, during your meetings, everyone, and particularly the native speakers, need to use fewer idioms, slang terms, and arcane cultural references when speaking to the group. Second, make sure everyone is getting airtime. As the meeting leader, monitor who is and isn’t contributing and increase everyone’s engagement. Third, as the leader, you must draw out and query everyone’s thinking. Use questions to pull the best ideas forward to foster collaborative decisions and the best business outcome.
Watch the use of metaphors
In the United States, we are often unaware of how many military and sports metaphors we use. We “rally the troops”, plan a “full on assault” or push for a“ full court press.” In our example above, the CEO may have inadvertently escalated the concern of the Chairman of the Board by making it sound like a life or death situation. In addition, his statement doesn’t “personalize” or show any investment in resolving the problem. I’m not saying don’t use analogies or metaphors, but make it a choice. That choice needs to be made based on who is on the receiving end.
Ignore the needs of your diverse team and partners at your own risk. For virtual teams, it’s crucial to thoroughly evaluate the impact that gender, language, and culture can have on how efficiently and smoothly your team delivers on planned business outcomes. As a leader, it’s incumbent on you to not only apply the recommendations above, but to model the behavior you want to nurture amongst your team. You’re business depends on it.