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Crucial Influence

Uniting Divided Teams

Dear Crucial Skills,

I read your survey results on long-distance loathing with great interest. I work for a multi-site corporation and approximately two-thirds of our staff are in one city while the rest are dispersed over five smaller sites. Despite significant efforts to bring our teams together, there is still a strong sense of us and them. Can you recommend any strategies to make long-distance working relationships more cohesive?

Teamwork at a Distance

Dear Teamwork,

Yes! There is a great deal you can do to build teamwork among widely dispersed people. A good way to begin organizing your change effort is to think about all the sources of influence that create conflict and alienation in your current environment.

So first you need to ask, “What can I do to increase conflict?”

It turns out you can get almost any two people to resent each other if you do a number of things:

  • Give them a separate identity or goals.
  • Make it difficult for them to communicate.
  • Have them associate with a social group that already resents the others.
  • Make it difficult for them to help each other or limit their communication to official channels by imposing a chain of command.
  • Reward them for individual achievements or for supporting those in their geography but not the larger team.
  • Keep them physically isolated—allow few means for them to communicate and then only in sterile ways (voice only, e-mail, etc.)

Now, if you’ve read our book, Influencer: The Power to Change Anything, you’ll notice I’ve just outlined six unique sources of influence. I’ve also described reality for most dispersed teams. And finally, what I’ve done is describe a set of influences that will make it inevitable that individuals will, at best, tolerate those in other locations and at worst despise them.

Now some readers might think “inevitable” is too strong a word. But take a look at the findings from our recent Long Distance Loathing study:

  • Employees are 243 percent more likely to have problems with distant coworkers than co-located coworkers.
  • Employees report that these problems are much more difficult to solve and last much longer.
  • In order to cope with annoying distant coworkers rather than step up to crucial conversations they resorted to the following tactics when working with these colleagues: avoided their phone calls, stopped reading their e-mails, avoided working with them altogether, witheld information from them, criticized them to others, and challenged their decisions.

So, what can a leader do? Well, if the six sources of influence I already outlined are the reason for the resentment, then distance doesn’t make conflict inevitable. Distance is only one source of influence. You’ve got five other sources you can use to create a cohesive team. However, it will require work. It will require intentional effort. But what human change doesn’t?

Here are a few examples for using multiple sources of influence:

Source 1: Personal Motivation—Make a greater effort than usual to create team identity and purpose. Have a mission, charter, and operating rules. Have a team name. If possible, have periodic face-to-face meetings. Take extra care as new members join the team. Create as much face time as possible so people connect at a human level, not just a task level.

Source 2: Personal Ability—Build much better crucial conversations skills. This isn’t just a self-serving argument—it is an essential skill-set for ensuring people don’t resort to the dysfunctional games we describe above.

Sources 3 & 4: Social Motivation and Ability—Work to build bonds of friendship and trust. Begin meetings by having one or more people share a personal anecdote. Have the team work together on volunteer tasks, personal betterment tasks, etc. For example, have them raise money for United Way as a team, run races in their communities, or come together to build a Habitat for Humanity home.
Have team members from different locales meet together at client sites or work together on the same client’s projects.

Set the norm that everyone holds everyone accountable—you can’t afford to involve a manager.

Schedule frequent, formal feedback sessions—times when you specifically ask about what’s working and what’s not. When you have a concern, talk it out—don’t act it out.

Source 5: Structural Motivation—Use small prizes or awards—maybe competitions—that provide the occasion for recognition. Distance often removes informal opportunities to say “thanks.” Make sure you frequently let people know you are aware of their contribution and appreciate their work.

Source 6: Structural Ability—Provide daily or weekly progress on key business indicators that track the team’s performance.
Make sure people have visual reminders of their team members—photos that are near their phones or computers.

Create a Web site, Facebook page, or other social networking hub for sharing information. Stay on top of technical barriers—for example, often small changes to the organization’s network will deny access to remote workers.

If possible, have a physical “teaming space” where team members can meet. You may also have shared workspaces where people can set up temporary offices for more intensive face-to-face interactions.

Ask team members to define their core work hours—to build in some predictability as they attempt to contact each other.

Bottom line: If you systematically and intentionally counter the sources of influence that create conflict, you’ll inevitably see cooperation. Conflict is not the natural human condition. We are social creatures at the level of our DNA. All that’s needed is wise leadership to bring out the best and truest parts of our nature!

Good luck,

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Influence

6 thoughts on “Uniting Divided Teams”

  1. Patty

    This was full of great information. I do want to share one other idea for consideration: “Drinks together.”

    I would recommend this supportive activity for anyone geographically distant trying to maintain friendships with coworkers. This idea started when one of my co workers and I moved into parallel tracks onto opposite sides (Support/development)in the middle of a new product implementation that left us geographically distant, so we took to having “Drinks together.” Although our employer was unaware, we continued our friendship by calling on business line during scheduled non-business “happy hours.” The coworker friendship continued, unconstrained by distance or drink choice, as we maintained our core understanding of each other with minimal talk during this time of “work”, but rationalized that it continued to “grease” our work relationship accordingly until layoffs finally seperated us.

  2. Kelly Brown

    Great post! I’ll subscribe right now wth my feedreader software!

  3. KattyBlackyard

    The best information i have found exactly here. Keep going Thank you

  4. Luann Woneis

    Right on, Joseph! Geographically distributed teams can be as cohesive as centralized ones. It just takes a little thought and effort to be inclusive. I manage a department of 20 people located in 10 different cities across the US, and we all work with fellow team members who are even more geographically diverse than we are. We aren’t perfect, but we do function as a coherent team and enjoy working for a company that allows the flexibility to live where you are and can get the job done, not one that requires everyone to be at the corporate office. We love it and have done this successfully for many years. It works.

  5. James Raymond

    James Raymond…

    Why is it that we execute our free speech, and yet we still get verbally slammed for speaking our mind?…

  6. Jude K.

    Appreciate your article

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