Virtual Leadership Development:
how to master the new normal
By Philip Botha, Bernhard Zimmermann
In the series we share our experience and expertise as coaches and facilitators, focusing on leadership and leadership development in virtual or online contexts. We explore not only the inherent challenges we face in these environments but importantly, how to address these challenges yourself. Whether you are a coach or facilitator, a leader looking for ideas or solutions or just a team member wanting to make a difference, we will offer our experience, thoughts, tips and suggestions of how to approach this, as we dive deeper into the specific key areas.
In our discussion, going beyond Active Listening, we define the 4 levels of Conscious Listening. Often, listening is defined as consisting of 3 levels, but in our model we identify 4 levels or channels. Level 1 covers most of what is usually known as active listening. This essentially covers the words, content, message and meaning of what is being said and understood. Level 2 focuses on what transpires between the lines, in what is not said directly, during silences as well as through body language. We also cover specifically the challenges that we face when in a virtual context, as this is much more challenging to deal with than in a face to face situation, where our ability to really listen is already seldom great.
In the 2nd episode on Conscious Listening we focus on how to manage our awareness in virtual situations, through better connection and curiosity, helping us to better understand what others are saying. In online conversations we face many more challenges than in face to face situations, and we talk through many of the variables we need to address, to be able to do this effectively. We conclude the episode with a conversation about how to actively listen in an online environment using the classic Active Listening technique: listening, feedback and confirmation of what was heard.
In the virtual world, listening becomes much more important because of all the additional - real or perceived - barriers we need to overcome. However, instead of listening more, we tend to listen less.
We often listen to what we think others are saying, instead of concentrating and listening to what they actually say. Few people really even practice active listening in their day-to-day life despite being aware of the need for it.
In our 16th episode, we go even further than just active listening. From our perspective, developing curiosity is the foundation for what we call conscious listening, and this needs to be actively developed and nurtured. Both curiosity and conscious listening start on the being-level, where we need to foster interest, that in turn can develop into curiosity. Crucial also, is creating a safe space for people to be able to speak freely,despite feeling vulnerable. This is the starting point for building a deep connection, so often missing in online interactions.
On a practical level we actively need to bring people into a conversation, while at the same time, following our intuition and be able to listen at different levels. If we are able to do all of this, combined with the right questioning techniques, interaction amongst participants will need far less intervention from our side, as we would function more as a conductor in these conversations. Leading to a different kind of virtual conversation.
To manage ourselves in a virtual leadership development context, we need to take ownership for our attitude and emotions related to the challenges we face. How do we show up? Where is our focus when things are not going to plan in a specific situation? The Player attitude enables us to focus on our ability to take responsibility and act, rather than blaming others. The Learner attitude opens the space for curiosity and is absolutely essential for effective listening.
When disruptions happen, what capacity do we have to deal with the impact they have on us emotionally? How does this impact on others? When a participant shows up in a disruptive way? How do we deal with their disruptive behaviour.
Emotionally reacting to unforeseen events is normal human behaviour. However, we need the mental capacity and awareness to accept these and deal with them constructively and not being overpowered by them. To keep calm when things are not working out as they should, is an essential role model or the participants. Making issues transparent and staying calm helps normalise them.
They secret to interaction, is to keep the best possible connection to participants. Technology and its inherent challenges at best play a secondary role.
Be proactive not reactive!
Own issues that show up as normal.
We discuss the 7 key themes that always emerge in an RoE alignment conversation. These again, give rise or connect to every other topic or behaviour that is important to participants in a virtual interaction. Essentially, if we are able to align participants and their behaviour around these, we effectively establish psychological safety.
The 7 are:
Respect, which underlies almost all other behaviours
Openness, which is the starting point for everything
Trust, which in turn fosters collaboration
Confidentiality, for example is really important in an online context as effectively participants allow others into their private environment
Honesty, in a sense of being truthful in your interaction and behaviour
Fairness, without a sense of fairness it is difficult to be open
Listening, is key for online work so people feel to be heard and seen
A specific circumstance or context requires additional topics that need to be explored through open questions and reflection on connected attitudes and behaviour
Supporting participants to reflect on these helps them get clarity on their intention and purpose and enhances their commitment
Episode 13 continues our discussion on Rules of Engagement (RoE). We dive deeper into how the alignment process works and how to use this to create a solid foundation for safety, trust and collaboration. In online situations, this is even more important, as well as difficult, than in face to face situations, so that participants feel empowered and not subconsciously vulnerable, having to distance and protect themselves. We also focus on the impact of values and behaviours, touching on how to deal with, for example, disruptive behaviour, aligning participants behind constructive behaviour.
RoE builds a really strong connection with participants helping them uncover what they deeply need, in order to be able to work together constructively and effectively, supporting them to create what is important for them.
The 12th episode dives into the first part of Rules of Engagement (ROE). The essence of Rules of Engagement is to align on how we engage with each other, which in an online interaction is much more difficult to do than in face to face. The direct outcome of this alignment is the establishment of a circle of safety, which in turn lays the foundation for trust and in turn fosters collaboration.
Return on Engagement: If we are able to collaborate more and better when we engage online, we find a natural impact on results. In other words, we achieve a direct return on our 'investment in engagement'.
In Rules of Engagement, the focus lies on the process, in helping participants understand and express, for themselves, what is important for them in how they want to show up and engage with each other during the virtual reaction. It is not so much the specific topics, as the process that builds trust. This means that focusing only on the topics in a discussion will not have the same effect as using the process of alignment. Therefore it is important to take sufficient time for this, and allow for depth in the conversation. This will allow for an understanding of both acceptable and unacceptable or disruptive behaviour to be aligned on. This particularly pays off in especially longer engagements.
We continue in our 11th episode with part 2 of the elements we need to own in the process. Especially in a virtual context, where distractions are so tempting and easy for participants to drift off, providing a powerful hook and clear alignment with the purpose of the workshop or meeting has a direct positive impact on participants' motivation to engage with each other and the facilitator or leader and to stay engaged.
The final element also facilitates reflection and engagement. The ritual of Check In & Check Out is essential to lay the foundation for interaction and engagement.
In Episode 10 we dive deeper into part 1 of the elements of the virtual process we need to own - whether as a facilitator, or as the leader of a virtual interaction. One would consider the first element - preparation - as obvious. It is, however, it is still preparing as thoroughly as possible, as well as practising a virtual interaction, that makes it the key to success. Knowing the inevitable risk situations and playing them through is what makes it look easy in the end.
The other key element we cover in this episode to build success, is tbeing very observant of the participants and dynamics that unfold. Again, observing interactions and everything that happens sounds very logical, yet again, it is even more important than it would be in a face to face situation, while at the same time, much more difficult because of the challenges of the virtual process.
After spending a few episodes talking through the challenges we face, we are now moving from what these challenges are, to how to master them. We explore practices & solutions and tips & ideas of what we can do, to actually address them, based on our own experiences of having to deal with them.
In this episode, we want to give you a brief overview of the elements that help you own the virtual process. These we will cover in future episodes, so this episode will give you have a better understanding of what you can expect.
We talk about how to own the process and use Rules of engagement as a cornerstone for building trust in virtual interaction. In another element we cover how to manage yourself and explore how to consciously listen. Finally, we talk about how to manage technology, for it not to get in the way.
The last episode on the challenges covers technology failure or disruption. A key element in this challenge revolves around our own mind chatter about potential disruptions. This then distracts us from the actual workshop that we are supposed to participate in, or alternatively facilitate.
The frustration that builds with a disruption in technology can also sidetrack us, and limit our attention span, ultimately distracting us from finding constructive solutions.
In addition, strong perfectionism, a way to cover our own inner insecurity, absorbs the rest of our capacity to deal with disruptions constructively.
In this episode we explore how multitasking as a BEHAVIOUR distracts us from constructively participating when collaborating online and what influences that behaviour in ourselves. In an online workshop, we not only lose our connection to the learning process but also have a less than positive impact on others’ learning experience.
We also talk about our fear of technology and our anxiety to use it. Which is mostly triggered by our own lack of familiarity with a tool, as well as not understanding the processes in using the technology well enough. Finally, we explore the challenges we face when we lack enough practice, which in turn nurtures our fear of technology.
In episode 6 we cover firstly the challenge of excuses. Excuses can be found on the personal as well as on the relationship dimension, resulting from a mindset of blaming other things, people or technology.
Other challenges on the Relationship Dimension or Level are, Not Listening and Multitasking. When the mind becomes disengaged, we lose the ability to listen fully, limiting our ability to actively participate. Another form of disengagement is mental multitasking when being distracted. For a facilitator, this is one of the most difficult challenges for a facilitator to deal with.
In episode 5 we dive into the challenge, Lack of Intention - when collaborating in a virtual space. We focus on six elements that all interact and build on each other. These are: having a lack of purpose and clarity results in a perceived lack of choice. This in turn is very often driven or influenced by a lack of curiosity. As result, we experience a lack of engagement and subsequently a lack of commitment to be able to collaborate effectively.
In the 4th episode we dive deeper in the challenges that emanate from vulnerability and fear. Specifically, we talk about the mental barriers that are triggered through a lack of trust, the deep fears about ourselves and who we are, which very often trigger self-protection as a reaction. In addition, we cover self-limiting beliefs and the challenge we face of having to open ourselves up in an virtual environment in order to participate and benefit from the online interaction.
In this overview episode we look at the challenges of virtual leadership from three perspectives or levels: the personal, the relationship and task level. We also touch on a few challenges to prepare for the deeper dive we do in later episodes. For example, we briefly explore topics such as, vulnerability and fear, not listening & multi-tasking as well as fear of technology.
In the 2nd episode we start with what everyone now calls the New Normal, in which virtual leadership needs to function effectively. The rest of this episode provides an overview of the elements that contribute to making a virtual session more powerful.
In episode 1, we cover the scope of the whole series, focusing on three key areas. We start with the powerful impact the online or virtual world offers leaders, then an overview of the challenges we face in this environment and finally close with an overview of how to overcome these challenges.
An underlying structure of the whole series focusing on the three dimensions of effective work. The self, what happens in us with our motivations, intentions and mindsets, connecting it to the interpersonal or relationship level, and finally combining it with the tangible or task level.