As I often share, sometimes the best books about compliance are not compliance books. And in our world of virtual and hybrid learning, it could not have been a better time (with thanks to Christian Hunt, founder of Human Risk) for calling my attention to “Can You Hear Me?: How to Connect with People in a Virtual World” by Nick Morgan.
What initially caught my attention about “Can You Hear Me?” is that while it was published in 2018, it is a valuable resource in how to transition in-person ethics and compliance training to our current virtual and hybrid environment. Looking back to the spring and summer of 2020, much of the thinking was that a relatively linear transition from in-person interactions to digital platforms would be satisfactory, even if not optimal. But as a plethora of research demonstrates, it’s not that simple. When we are together for training, we are active participants—engaging in the content, asking questions, and using breaks and meals to continue the conversation. In addition, those in-person training sessions afforded compliance leaders a chance to mingle with their commercial peers and deepen bonds and relationships with the workforce.
Yet our virtual and hybrid experiences can be quite the opposite. We become passive participants, perhaps multitasking during training and focusing on video appearances instead of the content. Often unsure if we should be asking questions, what materials need to be read before or afterwards, and what’s mandatory and what’s optional, our virtual world can be become confusing, stressful, and complex. However, if we acknowledge digital training is a much different skill set, both from a technology and content perspective, we just might have an opportunity to return to deepening those workforce bonds and emerging from this crisis with stronger ones than when we started. If that sounds counterintuitive, welcome to “Can You Hear Me.”
The premise of the book relates to how “virtual relationships are more fragile and easily disrupted because they lack the unconscious connections our face-to-face interactions automatically convey.” Indeed, as Morgan states, “in-person communication is incredibly rich, loaded with information about how the person we are talking to is feeling at every second of the conversation,” while in our virtual world “we are more connected than ever, and more alone.” Thinking a good audio and video feed with great meeting software solves our virtual challenges can be misleading: Morgan shares how even “video calls are sensory-poor experiences.” But why?
He points to a number of factors in our virtual world that can “hurt decision-making,” the exact opposite outcome we seek in our virtual training and interactions. Yet there’s no getting around our new world of back-to-back video interactions, where, as Morgan shares, we “can’t keep up” and can’t “decide the relative importance of all the stuff coming at you.” The good news is these profound and inherent issues are also solvable. Morgan surfaces solutions to mitigate the five “big problems with virtual communications”—those being “the lack of feedback, empathy, control, emotion and connection”—with a roadmap of “how to think about them and what to do about them.”
So, with thanks to Scott Eblin (CEO of the Eblin Group) for the introduction to Morgan, I thought I would ask the author a few questions:
Q. Nick, thank you for sharing some thoughts with the Compliance Week community. In your conclusion to “Can You Hear Me?,” you address trust and how “when it is threatened, it’s instantly broken, and it’s virtually impossible to reestablish it. People simply move on.” In compliance, trust is so critical, especially between compliance and commercial teams. So, in our virtual world, how can we continue to build trust? Is it just about the delivery platform and frequency of our virtual messages, or is there something deeper we need to be considering?
A. The shape of trust changes considerably online. In person, we establish it by checking the intentions of the other person or persons in the room and interpreting their actions and words through our five senses. Online, we lack the information of the senses, and so the first thing that happens is we form a negative bias to everything we receive online. For example, if you suggest an idea to someone on an audio conference, there will be a slight millisecond delay before they respond. That’s built into the technology, but you will interpret that response as “they don’t like the idea” or, worse, “they don’t like me!”
Second, we are much more intolerant of the normal inconsistencies of people online—we judge their trustworthiness by the consistency of their behavior. And third, we are impatient—we naturally offer much less time to the other party online. To build trust online, then, we need to work against these three built-in problems. We need to be positive, consistent, and brief—increasing all of these by a factor of 10 from our past behavior!
Fundamentally, because we humans care about intent so much, the question to ask ourselves is, “How did what I just communicate make you feel?” If you don’t know the answer to the question, then consider asking it out loud to the recipient of your communications. The answer will tell you a good deal about the intent of the other person and show you to be someone who is a) interested in how the other person feels; and b) respectful enough to ask. Respect is a key motivator online. Because intent is harder to discern, people are naturally quick to assume they are being disrespected.
Q. You conclude with the need to be “intentional about emotion.” Yet virtually, is it possible to be both compassionate and clear? We have seen the need for a new emotional skill set in terms of empathy and compassion when communicating in this environment, yet compliance leaders also have information they need to convey. So, is it possible to convey both compassion and clarity in our virtual world?
A. It’s a real challenge. Because of the negativity bias, we experience criticism much more harshly online. And the negative information causes us to doubt the relationship in a way that we don’t always in person. So, to be both compassionate and clear, you must spend more time stressing the positive aspect of the relationship—before and after clarity on your (negative) feedback. The idea is to stress the relationship is ongoing and will endure, and that your criticism is specific and temporary.
The old insight applies online—only much more so—that if I do something wrong it’s because I’m having a bad day, but if you do something wrong, it’s because you’re a bad person. Online, we jump to judge the person as faulty much more quickly precisely because we don’t have the deep trust connection we have in person with someone we know well. My uncle Jim, whom I see every year at Thanksgiving, is a decent uncle I love and respect. But every year he drinks too much during the big dinner and says something inappropriate. I forgive him every year because I know him and trust him most of the time. Online, that kind of forgiveness for a transaction is almost impossible. You must keep this fragility of online relationships in mind when you offer feedback.
Q. In mitigating the “digital dragon’s teeth,” you share eight “if-you-get-nothing-else-from-this-book” takeaways, and I won’t spoil any of them other than “get regular group input.” Speaking as my former commercial self, that got my attention as to how a continuous feedback loop can help to align the needs of the trainer to the trainee, so to speak. Yet we are in a globally disbursed digital and hybrid world. So, why is “input” one of your eight, and have you seen any best practices as to how to have that continual feedback loop that have worked well?
A. Virtual communicating is much more democratic than in-person communicating. By that I mean when we communicate via Zoom or a phone call, you and I are just similar nodes on the network. In person, you might respond to the trappings of my position and personal impact. Online, that’s much less likely to be impressive because I’ve been reduced to a small picture the size of your laptop, or even worse, mobile phone. The effect is to reduce positional power so that we all appear equal, more or less. As a result, we need to allow for feedback from all parties, so that everyone feels included (and indeed is included).
Now, add to that the shorter attention span online, and the result is we should be looking for feedback and group input every 7-10 minutes on a video conference. On an audio call, 10 minutes is good. Think about changing the format of what you are doing. If you’ve been lecturing or speaking, then alternate with a discussion, short video, Q&A session, or an interview. There are many possible ways to vary an hour-long meeting, say, and you should use all of them in 10-minute segments if you can.
Q. Nick, a final question: We seem to be moving to a hybrid world of learning, where interactions will be a mix of those in office and those virtual, which seems to have its own set of challenges. I have recently been reading about “proximity bias,” which I didn’t even know was a bias until we entered this current environment. Any thoughts about “Can You Hear Me” and connecting in our hybrid world?
A. Before the pandemic, I saw research on the effects of communicating in a mixed environment, where some participants were in the room, some were connected on a video feed, and some were listening via audio. What happened was that a hierarchy immediately developed. The people in the room got more floor time, were taken more seriously, and had their input valued more highly. Next came the video participants, but a distant second. And third were the audio participants. It’s important to understand all participants felt the people in the room had the highest quality experience, and the people attending virtually had the lowest quality experience, both in how they rated the session and how their participation was rated. It’s not good to be virtual when other people are face-to-face! So, if that is the new normal, then we are all going to have to work to equalize participants and participation.
Q. Thank you for your time, Nick. For those who might want to get in touch, how is best to connect?