You’re reading an excerpt of The Holloway Guide to Remote Work, a book by Katie Wilde, Juan Pablo Buriticá, and over 50 other contributors. It is the most comprehensive resource on building, managing, and adapting to working with distributed teams. Purchase the book to support the author and the ad-free Holloway reading experience. You get instant digital access, 800 links and references, a library of tools for remote-friendly work, commentary and future updates, and a high-quality PDF download.
We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behavior.Stephen Covey, bestselling author, The Speed of Trust: The One Thing that Changes Everything*
“Assuming good intent” has become a common recommendation for modern workplaces.* However, it poses some problematic dynamics in distributed teams, especially those that strive to be diverse and inclusive.
cautionAsking individuals to assume good intent in written communications shifts the burden towards the receiver of the message and not the originator. When it comes to communication in distributed teams, what someone meant to say matters less than what was understood. This intent-impact gap can be perilous. No matter how well-intentioned, the wrong message can set a distributed team back significantly. Effective communication between two or more parties requires that everyone understands the message in the same way.
Your remote co-workers build a representation of you based on their interactions with your messages. They see how you gave feedback on their strategy document or how you replied to their email. They’ll observe the way you talk and interact with others in shared spaces, especially those that lack tone or facial expressions.
Distributed team communication requires the entire team to become skilled at clearly conveying intended meaning, and this can’t be replaced by using more or better tools. Communication tools won’t improve the quality of what you say; they can only make it happen faster or slower, or reach further.
Managers play a critical role in building practices to overcome the intent-impact gap, both stepping in to resolve communication-related conflict when it crops up, and giving team members clear feedback when their communication is ineffective, or worse, harmful.
cautionManagers and executives must also conversely be aware of the outsized impact their own communications can have—an exec asking about a project’s status in Slack will likely be received very differently than an inquiry from a peer. Poorly written interactions, especially those from leaders, become part of the permanent record of a distributed team. These quickly erode trust, and can create damaging situations that are difficult to fix. See Team Integration for more on better communication practices for distributed team managers.
Tone is the emotional content of a message. When we speak, the tone we use helps others understand our mood. When we write, we replicate tone by using punctuation or symbols, and by varying the formality of our messages.
An exclamation mark will never replicate what our voices can do! Emoji can be ambiguous too: 😬
Another challenge with email or other written communication is not the lack of tone, but rather, the implicit tone.* For instance, messages that are too direct can have a negative effect on recipients by coming across as rude or mean—especially if they’re coming from someone in a position of authority. Accuracy in the emotion conveyed with a message is crucial in helping us understand the reason behind the message and figure out an appropriate response.* You can use Grammarly to analyze your writing and get a tone score in real time. Tools like this help people pause and rewrite before sending.
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