This article was originally published on 9 September 2020 on Forbes.com
Anne from accounting is usually so nice. But lately, is it just your imagination, or have her emails taken on a cooler, snappier tone? Scenarios such as this are playing out across businesses as remote working has been adopted as the norm. Why? Because disagreements are more likely to occur when you can't see each other face-to-face. But when we understand the reasons why this happens, it gives us a better chance to recognize the situations in which our tendency could be to assume the worst — and instead choose to assume the best.
Reason #1: Lack of visual cues
Non-verbal communication is a key regulator of relationships, providing a critical support layer to our verbal exchanges. It is also one way in which we signal if we like someone (known as non-verbal immediacy). This involves adopting relaxed postures, closing physical distances, touching, smiling, nodding, etc. Research has shown that when supervisors exhibit these behaviors, their direct reports feel more supported. We now have fewer opportunities to display the type of casual signaling behavior that builds positive relationships. Non-verbal communication is such a strong component of overall communication that it can often contradict what's being said — and when verbal and non-verbal communication cues conflict, we tend to rely on the non-verbal cues. But now we don't have those.
Reason #2: We fall prey to the fundamental attribution error
The fundamental attribution error describes our tendency to explain other people's poor behavior as arising due to an innate character flaw, rather than because of a situational event. A classic example of this is a driver cutting you off in traffic, who you then conclude is a colossal jerk — only to then later learn that they had their pregnant wife in the backseat and were rushing to the hospital. This tendency to assume the worst is more likely to happen when we can't check in physically with one another to clarify intent. In the office, we could just pop over to our colleague's desk and ask for clarification or read their body language. And in that moment, we may learn that they had a stressful call from home, or were multi-tasking, or had some other situational event that caused them to act differently than normal. We can't do that now, and that can lead to more misunderstandings.
Reason #3: We have less in-person history to fall back on
The keyboard warriors among us can be quite abrupt over email, and email volume is likely to rise in a remote world. However, these same keyboard warriors can also be lovely face-to-face. In a remote world, these in-person meetings are less likely to happen, if they happen at all. This provides less opportunity to build rapport and history, and it is that history of past interaction patterns that we fall back on when evaluating whether the latest message came through the way it did because our colleague is a disagreeable person, or because it's just his or her email style. In-person interactions give us more data with which to evaluate intent. We now have less of those, and those who join remote teams potentially have had zero face-to-face interactions.
Reason #4: We perceive more poor work behaviors in remote colleagues
I recently wrote in Forbes that some research found that people are over twice as likely to perceive poor work behaviors such as incompetence, mistrust, poor decision-making, lack of meeting deadlines with virtual colleagues versus those colleagues who are located onsite with them. This makes sense, as passive face time, defined here as the amount of time someone is passively observed by others (e.g. sitting in the office, walking in the hallway), has been used in the past as a mark of work contribution. Passive face time can often be used to assess the traits that impact work performance, such as initiative and dedication. If we no longer have passive face time influencing our perceptions, those perceptions of effort could take a negative turn.
Moving toward fewer disagreements
Conflict is a shared experience. Consciously committing to shift the frame from assuming the worst (which can often be the default) to assuming positive intent can make all the difference in turning what could have been a poor workplace interaction into a positive experience. And since we are more motivated to get close to someone with whom we've had positive interactions, this perspective shift can do wonders for colleague relationship building.