Don’t get it twisted

How to navigate the potential for misunderstanding in team communications

Technology has increased the choice of options for interacting with colleagues, whether in the same office or in another country. But that only means that the potential for misunderstanding is greater than ever. However, by keeping a few basics principles in mind, virtual communications can be a positive force.


Organisations often rely on teams to accomplish tasks and solve problems that are beyond the capability of one individual. Teams allow individuals to pool their different knowledge and perspectives in order to develop innovative solutions to complex problems. At the same time, teams are increasingly using virtual communication where team members interact using technology (e.g. email, instant messaging, tele-conferencing, and video conferencing) instead of face-to-face.

The growing use of virtual communication in teams is occurring for many different reasons; for example, team members are often distributed across different work sites, geographic locations, and time zones, making frequent face-to-face communication difficult. In addition, due to the widespread availability of different communication technologies, even team members that are in the same location often choose virtual communication over face-to-face meetings out of convenience. I have observed many teams where members prefer to send emails or communicate through other electronic means rather than take the time to get together face-to-face, even though they are in the same office on the same floor.

There is no doubt that virtual communication can offer a team great convenience and flexibility. However, researchers have found that virtual communication involves potential pitfalls that can undermine the quality of a team’s collaboration. To avoid these pitfalls, team members should be thoughtful in how they use virtual communication, rather than basing their communication choices primarily on convenience. This requires an awareness of which types of virtual communication media to use for different types of team communications, including understanding when virtual communication works well and when face-to-face communication is the best option. Applying a few basic principles, can help team members make more effective communication choices.

"Team members should be thoughtful in how they use virtual communication, rather than basing their communication choices primarily on convenience."

Information richness and interactivity

Teams today have a wide range of options for communication media to support their collaboration. These range from more traditional text-based communication such as email and instant messaging to those such as web and video conferencing that incorporate audio and video. Two important dimensions that differentiate these various media are their information richness and ability to provide interactivity. Information richness describes the extent to which a communication medium allows for the exchange of different types of information such as non-verbal cues, tone of voice and immediate feedback that help the receiver understand the intended meaning of the communication.

Interactivity refers to the exchange of information in real-time. Face-to-face communication scores high on both information richness and interactivity whereas a text-based medium such as email is low on these dimensions. Other communication media fall somewhere in between these two extremes. For example, video  conferencing is also a rich and interactive communication medium, but since communicating parties are not physically in each other’s presence, video conferencing does not provide as much situational information as a face-to-face meeting or promote as much awareness of one’s communication partner.

Not surprisingly, since human beings have evolved over thousands of years to communicate face-to-face, this is the mode that we tend to find less effortful and that most reduces the potential for misunderstanding in communication.

For what purpose?

Teams should select the medium that best fits the purpose of the communication. Have you have ever found yourself struggling to explain something back and forth using email and at some point given up and phoned the other person instead? If so, then you were feeling the mismatch between the communication medium and the communication purpose. Teams use communication to facilitate team members working together on the task as well as to manage emotions and maintain positive interpersonal relationships between team members. Effective use of virtual communication must consider both of these aspects of teamwork.

"Have you have ever found yourself struggling to explain something back and forth using email and at some point given up and phoned the other person instead?"

When working on the team’s task, teams engage in activities that have different levels of complexity and require different levels of interactivity between team members. These range from straightforward information sharing to more complex communications to solve ambiguous problems with no clear solutions and where it is necessary to reconcile differences in viewpoints and approaches between team members. More complex tasks where a lot of communication back and forth between team members is needed for an effective outcome require richer and more interactive communication media.

For example, sharing status updates can be done effectively using email or posting the information online for other team members to view, but intensive collaborative work is best done using a medium that allows for audio, video and document sharing. For highly complex tasks, face-to-face is often the best option. Of course, teams might be faced with practical constraints that impact their communication choices, for example, some team members not having access to certain communication technologies. However, where possible, teams should follow the general guideline of selecting the communication medium based on the purpose of the communication.

"Intensive collaborative work is best done using a medium that allows for audio, video and document sharing."

In teams where meeting face-to-face is a challenge and using technology for intensive collaborative work seems daunting, many teams default to taking a more pooled approach to working on such tasks. This involves team members separately working on different pieces of the task and then combining the components together at the end. However, although it is more convenient, this approach limits sharing and debate of knowledge and ideas and, therefore, may undermine the very reason the team is collaborating in the first place — i.e. to promote integration of diverse expertise and perspectives. Therefore, if true collaboration is needed, the team must force itself to use the available communication technologies—ideally ones that are high in information richness and interactivity—to facilitate the collaborative process, even if face-to-face interaction is not possible.

Text-based dangers

In addition to working on the task, effective teamwork also involves dealing with frustrations, disagreements and personal conflicts between members that can disrupt team functioning. Here again, the general rule is to use richer, more interactive communication media for dealing with issues that are more interpersonally sensitive. When using text-based media, individuals tend to be less inhibited in their communication because they are less aware of their communication partner as individuals. Hence, a team member who is angry or frustrated is more likely to blow up at another team member or use inappropriate language when communicating using email than when the communication is face-to-face.

In addition, a team member who receives a text-based communication is more likely to interpret the message more negatively than intended. This is because there is a lack of cues (e.g., nonverbal and tone of voice) that facilitate accurate understanding. This tendency for senders of communications to be less inhibited and for those receiving communications to interpret messages more negatively can set up a destructive cycle where bad feelings escalate to cause irreparable damage to relationships in the team. Hence, team members should avoid the use of email and other text-based communication media for resolving interpersonal conflicts.

Further, given the bias toward negativity in both sending and receiving text-based communications, it is important for senders to take the time to make sure that they are striking the right tone, possibly even erring on the side of having a more positive tone. It is also important for receivers to take the time to ensure that they are interpreting the communication correctly. They should be willing to suspend judgment when faced with communications that are unclear or appear negative and take the time to seek additional clarifying information before assuming bad intent on the part of the message sender.

Facing up

Despite the flexibility and convenience virtual communication offers a team, it can be easy to forget in today’s wired society that sometimes meeting face-to-face is the best option. Hence, teams should be very thoughtful when selecting communication technologies to support effective teamwork, rather than go with the most convenient approach. In particular, they should make a particular effort to meet face-to-face when the team is initially forming. Research shows that an initial face-to-face meeting can accelerate the development of trust and cooperation among team members, and speed the way to becoming a high performing team.

In that initial face-to-face meeting, it is a good idea to take some time to agree on communication guidelines for the team. Which technologies will the team use to complete different tasks in the project and to ensure that, when needed, there is adequate discussion, sharing, and integration of team members’ ideas? When and how often will face-to-face meetings be needed? What types of communications should not be done via email? With some forethought, teams can maximise the value of their virtual communications by better leveraging technology to support the needs of the team.

N. Sharon Hill

Dr. N. Sharon Hill is associate professor of management at The George Washington University School of Business in Washington, D.C., United States. Her research focuses on helping teams collaborate more effectively and she also studies factors that contribute to more effective implementation of organisational change. Dr. Hill has previously worked for multinational organisations in the United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany, and the United States. Her global, cross-functional business experience includes leadership of global project teams as well as leadership roles in information technology, quality improvement, organistional change, and corporate training and development. She is also founder of Hill Management Consulting Services, where she works with organisations to implement research-based strategies for improving teamwork and organisational change implementations.