How Managers Can Enhance Nonverbal Cues for Virtual Teams

Jul 7, 2014
8 Min Read

Science shows that most of our communication is unconscious, and the implications for leadership is profound. If leaders want to increase their influence and ensure that their teams are engaged and motivated, then they need to understand how nonverbal cues work -- especially critical with virtual teams.

Research shows that our conscious brains can handle about 40 bits of information a second. While that may sound like quite a bit, consider the fact that our unconscious minds can handle 11 million bits of information per second – and 10 million bits of that can be visual data.

In a new book, “Power Cues,” author Nick Morgan explains this means, for example, that if you suddenly get a “powerful gut feeling that the person sitting across from you is concealing an important feeling or piece of news, that’s your unconscious mind at work.”

He points out that studies show that we make most of our decisions unconsciously and only become aware of them consciously after the fact, once we are already acting on that decision. The bottom line: Your unconscious mind is really in charge, he says.

That’s why he says it’s important to understand how you communicate with others – especially if you’re in a leadership position and want to influence and persuade others.

For example, many leaders don’t realize that it may be difficult to establish trust with a team in a virtual environment.

“People become in sync with one another when they are together, and that chore is mostly done through body language and your unconscious mind. But that is taken away when video is used,” he explains.

For example, let’s say a boss makes a comment to a worker that is meant to be lighthearted and ironic. To convey this thought, he or she may put a hand on the employee’s shoulder, offering a smile. But, if this comment is made through email, then the employee may interpret that comment as much harsher.

“After that, all it takes is a few more comments made virtually, and then it all breaks down. You have a raging case of distrust and motivation,” Morgan says. “As a manager, how do you begin to untangle it all and figure out what went wrong and when?”

The problem with virtual relationships is that is can often only take one stumble to completely destroy trust, he says.

“When you’re in a face-to-face relationship with someone, they may make a dumb comment but they package it with a shrug or smile,” Morgan explains. “So we’ll let someone we know get by with it because our unconscious beams out trust. We let them go with the flub.”

But when such a flub is made virtually, “we don’t get the emotional wrapping” and it becomes more disturbing to us because we lack that deeper connection made through our unconscious.

“There is much less context, and we write the person off as an idiot because our connection is so weak,” he says. “Once trust is threatened, it’s instantly broken and it’s virtually impossible to reestablish it. People simply move on.”

The impact for managers can be profound. For example, employees may misunderstand an email, or not pick up body language on Skype conversations, leading to workers becoming unmotivated and less loyal. Also, the unconscious mind handles the job of sensing other people’s attitudes and intents from body language and the brain remembers things by attaching emotion to them. So, this may mean employees don’t remember – or understand – information from a remote leader.

How can leaders better communicate better virtually? Morgan suggests:

  1. Taking frequent breaks. Research shows attention spans may be as short as 10 minutes, and virtual meetings often last an hour or more.  Offer information in 10-minute segments, then encourage team members to take a brief break, even if it’s only to stretch.
  2. Expressing emotions. Since it’s hard to pick up on emotional cues via video, managers should lead the way by expressing their emotions verbally and encourage others to do the same. Morgan suggests saying something like, “I’m excited about everything we’re accomplishing!” or “I’m concerned that you don’t seem confident in the Q3 numbers. How are you really feeling about them?”
  3. Getting regular group input. In virtual meetings, the video often is triggered by who is speaking or people put their phones on mute. That means you may not pick up on someone who is yawning or looks upset as you would in a face-to-face gathering. A manager should pause periodically and poll everyone for input to help gauge the mood.
  4. Getting personal. Small talk is often used before a meeting to establish rapport, but that can be difficult in a virtual meeting. Encourage team members to send a one-minute clip of what they’re doing or show the weather where they are just to give it a more personal connection.

Finally, Morgan encourages managers to meet personally with team members, no matter where they’re located to strengthen relationships and establish a more emotional connection. He also advises that virtual communications should never be used to communicate serious information – managers still need to have personal sit-down meetings when the stakes are high for the individual or the company, he says.

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