This article was originally published on the Forbes blog.
Amy was venting to a colleague that her virtual team had become so big that, if pressed, she wouldn’t be able to pick half of them out in a lineup.
In a span of three years, Amy has gone from managing a team of 10 to leading a project team of 60 consultants and 45 employees, all spread across four time zones. She compares her responsibilities to juggling dozens of balls in the air at once. She has been struggling to effectively motivate and unify her team, and that was before Covid sent them all home. It’s no wonder Amy is frustrated.
Amy is not alone. Business trends continue to show a move toward dispersed teams in a gig economy. Statista estimates that by 2027, 86.5 million people (50.9% of the workforce) will be freelancers, including consultants.
Leaders in this new economy are all asking the same questions:
“How do we keep dispersed teams motivated?”
“What tools do we have to manage a team we may not know well?”
“How do we ensure individual loyalty to the team mission?”
So how do you, as a leader, unify a disparate group of people when their typical forms of connection — hallways, water coolers, lunchrooms and conference tables — aren’t accessible? The first step is to redefine what a team can look like. While the actual team structure may be changing, the elements that define a team remain the same: an aligned vision, well-defined goals and effective communication.
As a leadership trainer and executive coach, the one thing I consistently see leaders forget to do is speak to their team members the way each member needs to be spoken to. No matter if they are on-site or virtual.
Three points to remember when talking with your teams:
1. What does each person need to hear?
2. What information will influence their decision-making?
3. What assumptions do I need to let go of when interacting with them?
As a leader, you need to speak to your team members in their language. This is what I call the Titanium Rule of Leadership.
You can start applying the Titanium Rule today. The first step is to start listening to the questions team members ask. There are powerful clues embedded in their questions, which reveal how they think. Once you identify each members’ thinking preference, you can align your communication style accordingly for optimal impact.
In my work with leaders, the Emergenetics Profile is one of my favorite communication hacks. It’s a psychometric assessment tool that reveals how people prefer to communicate. I’ve seen it have a lasting impact on companies again and again.
For instance, if team members are asking questions like:
• “Why are we doing this? What is the strategic plan? What is the budget for this? Could we do this ourselves, rather than hire from the outside?” Chances are they have a preference for Analytical thinking.
• “What is the process or system for this? What guidelines are in place? Is this the most practical approach? What are our deadlines?” They most likely have a preference for Structural thinking.
• “Who is involved with this project? Who will be impacted by this decision? Who can we collaborate with? Who can we talk with to get another perspective?” They may have a preference for Social thinking.
• “How does this help us reach our vision? What other ideas do you have? How can we think outside the box on this? What else should we consider?” You’re most likely talking to someone with a preference for Conceptual thinking.
Once you understand your team members’ individual thinking preferences, then you are able to speak to them the way they want to be spoken to. Nothing unifies a team faster than when each member truly feels heard. When you achieve this, you are leading by the Titanium Rule. When you adhere to the Titanium Rule — speaking to others the way they want to be spoken to — you maximize your ability to influence.
Speak to people in their language and you will build trust and loyalty, regardless of team structure. And chances are, now that you’re more connected and aligned as a team, you’ll have no problem picking any one of them out of a lineup.