A 2021 article from Harvard Business Review has caused quite a discussion on LinkedIn. The article discusses some research that shows that if you want someone to do something, you are 34 times more effective if you ask them to do it in person compared to asking them virtually – whether by email, phone, or video.
The impact of hybrid working is huge. Most workers rely on their ability to influence other people; leaders cannot function without being able to delegate down and across the organization. Business structures by default are built around co-workers being co-located and that once a task is identified, it can be assigned to someone to complete it. But the research suggests that we need to rethink the way we assign tasks and persuade people that it is up to them to complete them.
The Downside Of Saying No To Authority
Managers cannot afford to spend more time on influencing and persuading – and this may be the reason so many managers are uncomfortable with the flexibility and freedom of working in a hybrid format. One of the messages of the pandemic is the importance of personal wellbeing and having the ability and courage to say no to authority. This research suggests that we’ve learned the second part of that very well indeed!
The challenge facing managers is that it is much harder to get to ‘yes’ when you have many of your tools ruled out of the game. When we influence in a face-to-face situation, we instinctively read the context, choose our moment carefully, and watch out for the little non-verbal tells that indicate which approach is working best. When we are sitting or standing across from someone, we use our own body language to impress upon our counterpart the importance of our request and we leave them little opportunity to say no.
We are able to read the cultural impact of our request much more effectively. In fact, many managers are finding that they haven’t noticed the hidden ‘no’ to their requests. One manager, Inna told us that she had asked a team member, Johann to prepare a report before their meeting the following day. Johann had said that he, “…wasn’t sure if he’d manage it on time.’
Inna left the call assuming that Johann would at least get an incomplete report if not the whole thing. When she didn’t get any report at all, she followed up with Johann, who was surprised that she was expecting anything, given he had told her he wouldn’t do it.
Arthur was similarly confused. He asked Nadia to do a presentation to a client – she was an engineer who often helped the sales team with the technical elements of pitches. He set up a zoom meeting to discuss it and they worked on the slide deck together. Nadia practiced with him for an hour or so and all seemed well. About thirty minutes after they finished, Nadia emailed Arthur to say she wouldn’t be able to do the presentation, as her boss had given her a new project.
Both Inna and Arthur found that they had not been effective influencers in a situation, where had it been face to face, there is no question that they would have succeeded.
How To Understand Others’ Reactions To Influence
In a virtual team context, influencing is harder because there are four essential elements missing:
- Clues to understanding the best cultural approach
- Body language feedback
- Ability to reinforce persuasion with non-verbal emphasis
- Pre-empting of possible objections
Even cultural intelligence experts struggle in a virtual world to make sense of the niceties of intercultural communication. The hybrid world is complicated enough already without our brains having to incorporate conscious and intentional decision-making and cultural interpretation at the same time. And that means that we are more prone to the kind of faulty judgments and misguided assumptions that undermine the effort we’ve put into developing cultural intelligence.
Adapting Our Approach
If we’re writing an email, we unthinkingly forget to adapt our communication style to the recipient and when we’re on a call – even one we’ve organized ourselves – we multi-task and only half listen, exaggerating our lack of sensitivity to the cultural nuances of the conversation.
When we’re trying to persuade someone, we rely on being able to read the facial expressions and body language of the person we’re talking to, to inform our strategy. We instinctively adjust as we speak when we see the reactions of the other person. Children can usually tell whether their parents will agree to something even before the parent starts to answer, just from a look or a stance or a change to the breathing. Adults do the same, albeit with a little more subtlety.
If the person is on mute, or their camera is off, you can’t tell whether they are sighing in despair or jumping for joy; and so, you keep going with the same tactic regardless. And in the same way, your own body language reinforces the importance you assign to the request. We lean forward and are more animated when it’s important and when we really want someone to agree. On camera or in an email there is no equivalent. The person we’re trying to persuade is not infected with the same sense of urgency and so is more comfortable in deprioritizing your request.
The Conversation That Never Ends
And finally, the virtual influencer has less opportunity to be proactive in addressing requests. A conversation that starts on Teams or by email doesn’t have the same natural end that a face-to-face meeting has. And that means that a final decision isn’t always completely final. It’s very easy for someone to reopen it or to add a new objection – and all the time you’re closer to your deadline and have less room for maneuver.
At the time of writing, the HBR researchers have not yet come up with an answer – how can we improve our influencing skills in a hybrid world. It’s clear that the challenge is not going away. A government governs a country only with the consent of the population; organizations can only function effectively if the employee’s consent is to be persuaded to do things, so it is a problem that we must address and quickly.
Not Fit For Purpose
The COVID pandemic has taught us that many of the ‘old ways’ are no longer fit for purpose and are beyond saving. It may be that the tried and tested ways of influencing have gone the way of videotapes and landlines – the first step to hybrid influencing is acknowledging that the world has changed. Unlearning has become a popular concept in the past year or so – we need to unlearn and relearn the art of influence.
We need to allow for culturally different approaches and find ways to interpret the meaning between words to be effective in hybrid working – whether we influence down or up or across the organizational structure, we had better learn quickly!
This post was written by Chris Crosby, CEO, and co-founder of Country Navigator. Country Navigator is provider of cultural diversity and inclusion training in the workplace, creating unique and tailor-made solutions for businesses through inclusion, innovation, and collaboration. From cultural influences to unconscious bias, Country Navigator’s cultural diversity and inclusion training give detailed and highly accurate analysis across parameters including explicit and implicit communication and individual and group identity. Chris has over 30 years of experience in helping leaders, teams, and organizations to work better across cultures.
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