What virtual teams can learn from Bismarck: 4 rules for digital communication


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Reichskanzler Otto von Bismarck leaves his office in Berlin in April and breaks up to his country seat in Pomerania. There he spent a full ten months to recover from the hardships of the last few years. He continues the state business from there.

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Christoph Rammé consocium_christoph_rammeChristoph Rammé is the founder and CEO of the consultancy network Consocium.

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Without communication no success

Imagine, the Chancellor retires ten months in the seclusion of the alpine mountains and does their jobs virtually while hiking. It is totally unrealistic that today a head of government is staying away from the capital for so long, even though the technology would make it possible.

Could it be that we would be better governed today if the Chancellor simply took the liberties of Bismarck? But would not the chancellor have to spend most of her time in Berlin to work? In fact, she leads a virtual team: phone calls, text messages, videoconferences, eMails - used dozens of times a day.

There is no lack of suitable technology. But why is it that some virtual teams are successful and others are not? The answer is: to the communication rules. Even a non-virtual team that gathers in the same office space every day will not succeed if it does not follow fundamental communication rules.

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Rule 1: Four levels

When I communicate, I transport not only material content, but much more: how I present myself, my relationship with the recipient and what I want to achieve with my counterpart. This is no different for a personal conversation than for one eMail.

When the passenger says to the driver: "It is green!", He connects the request to leave, while in the driver's ear it sounds more like: "You are not paying attention. You're a bad driver. ” If the team has not learned to see and use the four communication levels (factual level, self-disclosure level, relationship level, appeal level), it becomes difficult - whether virtual team or not.

In addition to these rules, which apply to all teams, virtual teams face quite different challenges, first of all the technical: as a member of a virtual team, I remember some video conferencing, of which I did not get more than twenty percent because the acoustics miserable and some participants were not even in the picture.

Rule 2: Channels and rhythms

Despite best intentions, the team fails when it chooses inappropriate channels. This applies especially to virtual communication. As the team spreads across multiple time zones, asynchronous media like eMail or newsgroups as opposed to synchronous media like phone calls or videoconferencing.

Not only the channel, but also the rhythm of the interaction is crucial. A virtual team needs more interaction because it's harder to create proximity. The weekly videoconference will only become a success, if all participants are always actively addressed and express themselves. If everyone meets in the same room, the team leader will react, if someone falls asleep, he will not even hear it online.

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Who mainly communicates with each other via technical media, is cut off from the classic Flurfunk. All the more important is an online profile for each team member: it contains personal information such as function, location, accessibility as well as a photo and a few hobbies. Already I can address the appropriate addressee and have for the often underrated Small Talk equal topic hanger found. Not just the cause - all four communication levels can be recorded.

Rule 3: No Teamchef without communication competence

Without modern communication technology no virtual team works. But only the technology to provide, is not enough. Communication needs to be organized to a much greater extent. This is where the team boss is in demand, because he determines the rules. He can have these developed by his team, but he has to make sure that suitable rules are determined and everyone sticks to them.

One of these rules leads to the non-virtual world: personal learning accelerates team development. At the very beginning, teambuilding is the right way to get together. Telephone conferences are bumpy when the participants do not recognize the voice. A personal meeting as a kick-off facilitates further interaction.

Until a team develops its full potential, it commonly goes through three stages: the discovery phase, the dispute phase, and the regulatory phase. Only then does it reach the fourth, the performance phase. Virtual teams working in different locations also go through these phases. However, a single site may not necessarily reach the next phase at the same time as another site. Such an asynchronous history does not make it any easier. It is important to recognize this and then intervene in the necessary places via the appropriate communication channels.

Rule 4: The most severe technique against working stress

Bismarck also led a virtual team. To this end, he used the latest technology: post coaches, riding messengers, letters and telegraphic despatches.

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Our working world, which is becoming more and more flexible and virtual, gives us the opportunity to better combine private interests with professional ones and thus lead a life with less work stress. Bismarck as a role model? One of his biographers has calculated that the Reich Chancellor was on vacation halfway through his term of office.


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