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Dr Elissa Adame of Arizona State University: How To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space

Interview With David Liu

A key to keeping employees engaged and committed during such rough times is compassion. When employees feel cared for by their immediate supervisor, they have the courage to share when they are struggling and they are more likely to express their needs to the supervisor. This type of trusting relationship between supervisors and subordinates has great power in cultivating whole employees who are committed to their best life and their best work.

We are living in a new world in which offices are becoming obsolete. How can teams effectively communicate if they are never together? Zoom and Slack are excellent tools, but they don’t replicate all the advantages of being together. What strategies, tools and techniques work to be a highly effective communicator, even if you are not in the same space?

In this interview series, we are interviewing business leaders who share the strategies, tools, and techniques they use to effectively and efficiently communicate with their team who may be spread out across the world. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Elissa Adame.

Dr. Elissa Adame is an assistant research professor at Arizona State University who studies leadership communication, organizational training and change, and organizational learning processes. She teaches in-person communication courses at ASU and online courses through ASU Online.

Currently, Adame is working on research to investigate communication strategies to maximize feedback effectiveness and learning outcomes. Her work has been published in various communication journals and includes research in business communication.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I fell in love with communication as an undergraduate student sitting in the back of a mass lecture on interpersonal communication. The professor encouraged students to apply lessons from class to our everyday interactions. I was energized in learning that making these small messaging changes often resulted in big differences in the quality of my relationships over time. From there, I knew I would be a life-long learner of communication.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

In my first job after I earned my master’s degree, I worked as a trainer for a government contract. The company I worked for had a tradition of promoting mid-level supervisors to be trainers, and I was only one of two people they had hired directly to the trainer position from outside of the company. This hiring tradition created a culture among trainers that valued institutional knowledge over training expertise.

As I began training my own new-hire groups, it became evident that employees from my training groups were performing more competently on the job than students from classes with trainers who had decades of institutional knowledge. For me, the starkness of this discrepancy fueled my interest in the training environment and led me to earn my Ph.D. to explore training effectiveness from an empirical, communicative perspective.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” -Aristotle

This quote sums up the foundation for learning and change. When I began investigating the patterns that I noticed in my first training job, I realized the main difference was how students are treated. When you care for someone as a person first, and as a learner second — their hearts allow their minds to open up to new possibilities.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My dad has given me so many gifts that have propelled me to have the life I love now.

One specific gift he gave me was the nudge to go back to school to earn a Ph.D. When the economy crashed in 2008–2009, I was struggling to find meaning in my training career. My dad had a serious conversation with me about the meaning of a career and reminded me how alive I felt when I got to chase research questions and hypotheses. That conversation resulted in me applying to Ph.D. programs.

Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The pandemic has changed so many things about the way we behave. One of them of course, is how we work and how we communicate in our work. Many teams have started working remotely. Working remotely can be very different than working with a team that is in front of you. This provides great opportunity but it can also create unique challenges. To begin, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main benefits of having a team physically together?

Two main benefits of having a team that is physically together are:

  1. Face-to-face communication. It is the richest form of communication.
  2. A lot of comradery happens in the “in-between spaces” at work — at the printer, in the hallway, after a meeting. This small talk serves to connect employees to one another in a more meaningful way than the next project on the to-do list.

On the flip side, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main challenges that arise when a team is not in the same space?

When a team is not in the same space, they have less of a chance to connect with one another outside of the meeting.

For example, you may notice that someone seems a little upset in the meeting. If the meeting were held in person, an employee could take the chance to swing by their colleague’s office to check in or ask them to join for a quick coffee break. When working online, these informal chances to connect become more difficult.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges? What are your “5 Things You Need To Know To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Share your struggle. In this current environment where employees are working during a pandemic, many are managing other complicated situations outside of work. This, perhaps, includes managing their children’s online education, caring for immunocompromised family members, among others, and many employees are struggling. A key to keeping employees engaged and committed during such rough times is compassion. When employees feel cared for by their immediate supervisor, they have the courage to share when they are struggling and they are more likely to express their needs to the supervisor. This type of trusting relationship between supervisors and subordinates has great power in cultivating whole employees who are committed to their best life and their best work. Admittedly, the topics of “compassion,” “care,” and “struggle” at work feel overwhelmingly big and unconquerable without drastic changes to organizational structure. However, in research I worked on recently with colleagues Dr. Cris Tietsort and Dr. Sarah Tracy, we found that supervisors can demonstrate compassion to their employees in small, frequent, strategic messaging. It’s as simple as this: organizational leaders should talk openly about their own struggles. For example, before jumping into the business portion of the meeting, a manager might say, “I am really having a hard time today. My 3-year-old didn’t sleep well last night, and I feel like I can’t catch a break.” For some, this might feel counterintuitive. Afterall, sharing what you’re struggling with feels like it might result in your employees thinking that you are weak. However, what is lacking in so many workplaces, especially virtual spaces, is connection. The courage to share your struggle demonstrates that you are relatable and gives space for your employees to share their struggle with you. Really. Try it! Making this small change in the way I talk has made big differences in how I’m able to connect with others.
  2. Create “in-between” spaces. We know that a key reason employees stay at their job is because they like the people they work with. Much of relationship-building practices at work occur in the “in-between” spaces: the hallway, the watercooler, the printer, and before or after meetings. To create effective communication that facilitates healthy relationships and strong communication at work, organizational leaders should do their best to recreate these spaces online. For example, the supervisor of a team may choose to hold an informal 30-minute coffee chat on Monday mornings for employees to pop online and share a little about their weekends and lives. Organizational leaders can also build this into the existing meeting structure. Rather than begin the meeting with the first business item, offer employees a chance to answer a hypothetical question. To spur conversation, a manager might start a meeting with the question, “If you were the profession you wanted to be in 3rd grade, what would you be doing today?” These conversations do not completely replace the chance to bump into a co-worker in the hallway, but they begin to create an informal space that can facilitate relationship building at work.
  3. Balance task effectiveness with relational appropriateness. One reason virtual workspaces can be so challenging is that the format tends to drive us to want to focus more on tasks so we can minimize our time on zoom calls. From a communication perspective, this is problematic because, by definition, competent communication occurs at the balance of task effectiveness and relational appropriateness. When we spend so much of our time and effort on getting the tasks completed, and we ignore relational elements of our interactions, we risk competent communication. Beyond creating “in-between” spaces, organizational leaders can facilitate competent communication by making it a point to communicate relational appropriateness. This balance might sound like, “Hey, I really appreciate you taking on this task. I value your work, and I know I can trust you to see this through to completion.” Another option for messaging that balances the task and the relationship might be, “I know you have so many things outside of work going on right now. The fact that you are balancing raising a family with young kids and performing so well at work is not lost on me. Thank you for what you’re doing.” These messaging techniques that move past the traditional focus of task, to include relational appropriateness, move interactions toward competence.
  4. Cultivate a culture of growth through stories. Any organizational change requires that employees be malleable. A common message that organizational leaders might hear from their employees might be “I’m just not suited to work from home” or “I’m not a computer person, so working remotely long term is never going to work for me.” These types of message share in common the belief that abilities are fixed and unchanging and that, no amount of effort will change these deeply engrained (in)abilities. We know that many affordances are given to employees who believe that their abilities can change and get better over time with effort, and stories are a powerful way to shift employees toward this belief. When an employee points to their unchanging abilities, the manager could share a story about a time when another (potentially fictitious) employee had the same beliefs but worked with the manager to change over time and eventually became the team expert in the area. When these types of stories become part of the organizational culture, they also shape individuals’ beliefs about what is possible with effort.
  5. Activate the power of “yet.” Outside of stories, organizational leaders can also reiterate the importance of change and effort by adding one short word to the end of the employee’s excuse. When an employee says, “I’m not good with zoom meetings,” you can quickly reply with, “Maybe you’re just not good with zoom meetings… yet.” The power of “yet” highlights that ability can shift, and it works to create a culture that expects effort and growth over time.

Has your company experienced communication challenges with your workforce working from home during the pandemic? For example, does your company allow employees to use their own cell phones or do they use the company’s phone lines for work? Can you share any other issues that came up?

As a professor, my job is unique from many corporate jobs such that much of my work is done independently. That said, students did experience communication challenges as they shifted to online learning. The most common challenge I heard from students was the loneliness they felt from being unable to interact with other students between classes, during in-person work groups, or through informal friend networks. These challenges from students’ experiences further supports the need for organizational leaders to create “in-between spaces” that come closer to replicating the informal interactions that bring life to learning.

Let’s zoom in a bit. Many tools have been developed to help teams coordinate and communicate with each other. In your personal experiences which tools have been most effective in helping to replicate the benefits of being together in the same space?

The most common tool we use in my department is Zoom. This tool is the closest to replicating the benefits of being together in the same space. One way our department uses Zoom to replicate our faculty meetings is to create “break-out rooms” that simulate small group work as we divide to discuss issues or brainstorm solutions.

Zoom could be used to address the challenges of loneliness discussed earlier. For example, organizational leaders should consider creating “in-between spaces” by beginning Zoom meetings with a fun discussion question such as, “What’s your favorite dessert and why?” in small groups using break-out rooms. These smaller groups would give more employees the ability to speak and form informal connections that they might otherwise miss from in-person organizational talk.

If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?

Honestly, I do not believe that we need new features of systems, but that we need to learn how to communicate competently in a variety of different communication channels.

The way I communicate on text message should be different than the way I communicate in a face-to-face meeting. In our ever-changing and innovative society, the system of communication is always going to be changing. It is our responsibility to learn how to communicate effectively within each system.

The technology is rapidly evolving and new tools like VR, AR, and Mixed Reality are being developed to help bring remote teams together in a shared virtual space. Is there any technology coming down the pipeline that excites you?

The element of the new tools that excite me is that many of them offer us new platforms in which to practice competent communication. As such, no one tool excites me most. The communication rules and norms that develop in each unique tool demonstrates the need for communicators to be flexible in their rules for competent communication. In other words, context matters, and the tool becomes the context. So, a message in one tool might take on a completely different meaning when uttered (or typed or shared) in another tool. This phenomenon occurred in the development of the telephone, and again with email, and yet again with text messaging. As we learn to use each tool, we also learn that the tool becomes a context that helps others make meaning of our messages. Our responsibility is to learn the rules associated with the new tool.

Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?

This future of new technological advancements does not concern me. Humans are quite malleable, and are also rule-following beings. As new rules and new contexts are developed, humans will continue to adapt messages and learn meaning-making patterns within the specific tool. As I mentioned above, we have experience evolving with new technologies (the printing press, the telephone, the computer, among others). Humans will continue to evolve accordingly.

So far we have discussed communication within a team. How has the pandemic changed the way you interact and engage your customers? How much of your interactions have moved to digital such as chatbots, messaging apps, phone, or video calls?

I suppose I could consider my students as “my customers.” The pandemic has changed the method I use to interact with students during office hours. I hold online office hours on Zoom now, instead of in my office.

In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of working with a remote team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote team member?

An employee’s receptiveness to feedback relies on their beliefs about ability. If an employee believes that they were born with certain fixed abilities and they can’t do much to change them, the employee is not likely to be open to requests to change. On the other hand, if an employee believes that their ability is the result of effort and practice, then they are much more likely to be open to feedback and willing to do the work required to change.

As such, organizational leaders should work to cultivate beliefs among their employees that abilities are the result of effort, not simply fixed traits transmitted at birth. This culture of growth is important to cultivate in all workspaces, virtual and otherwise. To do this, organizational leaders can activate the power of “yet” and tell stories that illustrate how others’ hard work has resulted in big changes. In addition to these suggestions and specific to the context of feedback, organizational leaders can provide a context to why they are providing the employee with feedback that focuses on their beliefs that the employee can grow and change.

Before providing feedback, a manager might say, “I am giving you this feedback because I know you are a hard worker who will continue to grow and change. In short, I’m giving you this feedback because I have high expectations for you, and I know you can exceed them.” This brief messaging strategy activates employees’ beliefs that their abilities are malleable.

Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?

The ideas I provided regarding creating “in-between” spaces addresses this question.

Ok wonderful. We are nearly done. Here is our last “meaty” question. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

This is certainly not a new idea, but I would inspire a movement where people are kind to themselves and others in their pursuit to chase what sets their soul on fire.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can follow my work and the work of my colleagues on Instagram @asu_hughdowns.

Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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David Liu

David Liu

David is the founder and CEO of Deltapath, a unified communications company that liberates organizations from the barriers of effective communication

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