How to Get Your Remote Team to Do What You Need Them to Do
3 persuasion tactics for working with virtual collaborators
Influence is about getting your way.
It’s convincing a stranger, a colleague, or a friend to your mode of thinking. It can be like a tug-of-war trying to pull another person toward your idea — then just when you think your opponent has been convinced, you get yanked over, and it turns out you have not won yet.
Have you noticed that some people seem always to get their way? I became aware of this about a friend recently. Within a small or large group, her smile and inclusive nature always convinced us to dine at her place of choice.
If smiling and collaborating are key factors to persuading others, it made me think about how to show this optimism through online interactions.
With online persuasion, tone or body language are not involved, we only have plain text to do the convincing. This is because the information available for the receiver to interpret the sender’s intention is too limited. In-person communication is already hard, and it’s even harder within virtual teams.
Before reading Dale Carnegie’s book, the word influence called to a mind a crafty, dishonest person with an intention to fool me. I was wrong. Rather than a series of trickery tools, I found self-improvement tips to become a better human.
I’m not the only one looking to become a better human. This best-selling self-help book has sold over 16 million copies since 1936.
While Carnegie’s techniques are over 80 years old, winning people over never gets old, and it’s really about how to digitize these techniques for today’s distributed work world.
The center of the advice is this: gaining buy-in should be done indirectly. If we care about maintaining lasting relationships with the people, we want buy-in from.
Indirectly, to me, this means talking neutrally about an idea, with rich data, so that the other person sees benefits to them for the change.
The gentle means of achieving one’s way is what researchers call the soft approach. Conversely, they say the hard approach is one that is direct and assertive.
Soft influence style
Soft approaches involve appealing to others by consulting, sharing information, and applying data-focused reasoning.
My friend who often gets to choose where we eat has mastered the art of influence. Here is an example of how she has phrased her lunch idea:
I know you’re all very busy and we only have one hour. There is an award-winning sushi spot that is three minutes away. And if we leave now, we can get a table, try the city’s best rolls, and have lots of time for conversation. Is everyone OK with sushi?
The “award-winning” reference about the restaurant quality made us feel like there was an authoritative opinion other than hers. Telling us the restaurant was three minutes away appealed to our need for a timely lunch. She included us in the decision by asking if we would be OK with the suggestion.
Hard influence style
Hard strategies refer to using authoritative power, forming alliances, and applying pressure.
The direct method could have been: “Hey everyone, I really want to have some sushi today, let’s go to this spot down the street.” It’s short and direct, which most online communication is. And it’s how virtual teams tend to talk to each other. It comes off as commanding and controlling.
I grew up under an authoritarian parenting style. The disciplinarian approach meant living with high expectations. There were also many rules without explanation and zero tolerance for questions.
In my Asian culture, quizzing our parents is rude and disrespectful. You can imagine, then, that going into my adulthood, I knew of only one persuasive tool — the use of social ranking.
Nonetheless, that didn’t make me listen to my parents’ orders. I rebelled a lot, and I was spanked a lot for not following the rules. Eventually, my parents saw me distancing myself and adjusted their approach; they softened.
Virtual teams use hard influence approach
Even though the hard approach is now discouraged in parenting and work environments, experimental findings say virtual teams use the direct method more than face-to-face teams.
Online conversations lacking in audio and non-verbal signs make it easy for the reader to assume our messages are bossy. Examples to avoid are:
- Email with a CC to colleague’s manager
- Adding Urgent or ASAP to a message
So while technology has created flexibility in how work can be carried out, influential communication can suffer.
Virtual teams should adopt soft influence approach
Peers working in diverse locations need to adopt soft persuasion tactics and apply them to how they communicate online.
A 2014 study points to those of us who practice the How to Win Friends & Influence People theories are master influencers in virtual teams. The summarized principles by Karl Niebuhr should remind us of the basics of being a kind human.
Share, Smile and Collaborate
Sharing, smiling, and collaborating are powerful, yet friendly methods of persuasion
The reassuring news is the soft tactics can easily translate to virtual teams with a few digital tweaks. Here are the ways to gently convince others to work with our ideas:
Distribute evidence to ground ideas in logic
This can be done by creating connections between sound research and problems. Good research is based on a combination of credible sources and multiple viewpoints. The best approach to influencing is letting the well-researched data do the convincing.
An individual viewpoint is not an example of good research. Research that discusses only one side is not an example of sound evidence.
I’ve been guilty of sending out a message that starts with “I think we should all start doing X in a new way. Could everyone start to follow steps A, B, C.”
This style breaks the soft influencing practice by starting with “I think.” The “I” in this case removes any consideration for the other person. “I think” is also an example of a piece of anecdotal data.
It is not based on sound data needed for decision-making. Asking everyone to start doing something is also a rule breaker. It’s an example of trying to achieve a quick, directional message.
Instead, when we are looking for change and followership in an online environment, we should consider multiple messages.
Just like an in-person conversation that would start with understanding who we are talking to, asking some qualifying questions, share information that demonstrates sound research, and then steer the conversation to a solution that’s agreeable.
Add smiley faces to bring emotions and friendliness to a message.
It is easily forgotten in virtual conversations that we can be smiling when we type a message, but that is entirely invisible to the reader. Add positivity to chats, and colleagues may be more willing to consider new views.
I have taken for granted the value of using emojis in informal instant messaging chats. I used to view them as silly and unprofessional. However, in our growing non-face-to-face communications and audio messages, so much of the nonverbal language is lost.
One of the ways that I have seen success in is using emojis that show the emotion I’m feeling for the message. It could be an emoji of happiness 😊, or one of shock 😮, or one of approval 👍.
As a recipient, I value these now to tell me how the message sender is feeling. With the realization that a plain text message is just that — plain — we can take some extra time to bring emotions to our messages with digital emoticons.
Ask for other opinions before sharing own view.
Check to see if the solution suggested is one that will solve the problem for others. Seek input to create even better possibilities. Provide others the freedom to choose.
Asking questions from others can provide valuable insights into the best approach to convincing a change. Avoid starting with “I think” and “my view is” because it immediately restricts the other individual’s freedom of thought. It also raises questions in the other person’s mind about whether you are a credible source for the data.
An approach that has worked for me on looking to introduce a new process is asking qualifying questions like:
- Do you like the current process for X?
- What do you value about it?
- Where do you see changes that we need to make?
The best change outcomes have been when I meshed the responses from the above questions to trustworthy research. The combination of diverse viewpoints with pros and cons convince the reader without the need to introduce my opinion.
The act of influencing virtual work peers takes longer because immediate feedback may not be available. After we send a message, we have no choice but to wait. We have no idea how the receiver accepted the message. And without knowing, we are unable to correct and clarify our intended messages.
These challenges with online communication are the precise reasons a less direct technique is more effective. We need to focus on building friendships (a trusted relationship) before we can expect buy-in.
My introverted inside voice has said I don’t need more friends, but if we don’t encourage others to follow our plans, then we do our ideas injustice and allow them to die.