When communicating inside a virtual distributed team, things are not as clear and evident as when you operate in traditional physical environments. Virtual teams are somewhat more sensitive to bad or improper use of communication tools and methods as such teams pivot their key abilities specifically around their communication effectiveness.
Photo credit: VG Studio
But learning from the experience of other biological living teams, can give your team powerful insight into how, simple but properly utilized best communication practices, can make a huge difference in the performance and "tone" of the whole team.
Ken Thompson, bioteaming expert and author of an interesting Manifesto on this matter, explains in simple words the pros and cons of the three most popular communication modes (one-on-one, one-to-some, and one-to-many) utilized inside virtual teams.
A tiny bit of greater awareness and a proactive effort to make the best use of our communication abilities can really make a huge difference in how reliable and effective a team can be.
by Ken Thompson
From studying nature's bioteams it seems there are three dominant patterns of communication which can be used in a biological group.
All three also have their place in the electronic communications we use in our human teams. However one of them, if over-used, can be destructive or indicate the absence of crucial group support structures.
For simplicity I will label these three dominant patterns of communication:
Let us look at each in turn:
Shouting involves communicating with the whole group.
This is the main pattern of communication used by the social insects. It is a one-way broadcast communication, not requiring a reply. In nature it is achieved in the case of ants through scent trails (pheromones) and for bees via dances such as the waggle dance.
Human groups need to be able to do 'replyable broadcasts', for example to schedule meetings, conduct polls or obtain feedback. However I would suggest that it is even more important for human groups to learn to use one-way broadcasting much more.
The current addiction to two-way messaging is one of the ways a group gets slowed down unnecessarily.
Whispering is a one-to-one private communication pattern.
This also happens frequently in nature as ants and bees can communicate one-on-one by stroking each other or by exchanging fluids.
Human groups need to be able to whisper too. Not all conversations can be transparent - some are simply not relevant to the group and others are inappropriate.
A simple practical example of the need for whispering is on a web-conference where you need to get the administrators attention to say you wish to speak. Similarly the administrator may need to get your attention to tell you discretely you are talking to loudly, too quietly or too much.
Whispering is also a vital group 'grooming' activity between team members where trust and rapport is built through regular one-on-one conversations.
This third pattern of communications, gossiping, which I define as a private communication to some but not all members of the group is the one you need to be careful about.
Generally ants or bees do not use this form of communication.
Ad-hoc and random gossiping can be quite harmless and entirely useful in a group. However the danger arises when the gossiping recurrently involves the same subset of team members.
An obvious risk is that a clique is being nurtured within the group which may, at some point, undermine the transparency and trust in a high-performing team.
Alternatively, gossiping may indicate that you are missing a sub-group or a leadership ring. In the interests of transparency these structures should be made explicit to all and not kept a secret.
So there are three main patterns of electronic communication within groups:
b) gossiping and
You need to keep a note of how much each pattern is used in your team to ensure you use the right one at the right time.
Be particularly careful about gossiping as it may point to cliques forming or to missing structures.
Originally written by Ken Thompson for Bioteams and first published on December 6th 2005 as "Team Communication Patterns: Key Lessons From Nature"
About the author
Ken Thompson is a researcher, writer, and entrepreneur focusing on the world of high performance teams, and on the transfer of the best teaming practices from the biological world. He has published an interesting paper entitled "The Bioteaming Manifesto" which illustrates the basic principles of his vision. Ken publishes his best articles at Bioteams.com and has a mini-site dedicated to collaboration techniques.
Shout - Photo credit: LLM Images
Whisper - Photo credit: Lev Dolgachov
Gossip - Photo credit: Karen Struthers