Humanizing Distributed Electronic Meetings

Peter+Trudy Johnson-Lenz

Groupware '95 Boston

March 1995

1995 Awakening Technology

Conversations are the way knowledge workers discover what they know, share it with their colleagues, and in the process create new knowledge for the organization. The panoply of modern information and communication technologies -- for example, computers, faxes, e-mail -- can help knowledge workers in this process. But all depends on the quality of the conversations that such technologies support. -- Alan Webber, "What's So New About the New Economy?," Harvard Business Review, January-February 1993

Many organizations report that on-line conversations, particularly in distributed electronic meetings where people participate at different times and from different places, tend to be formal, distant, scattered, and disjointed. The qualities of connection, coherence, integration, and real collaboration often seem elusive over a network. Sometimes they're there, sometimes they're not.

But it doesn't have to be this way. It is possible to have electronic meetings distributed across space and time where people feel heard, contribute what they think, feel, and want, and where real learning and collaboration take place. All it takes is intention, planning, skill in using the medium, and a willingness to risk bringing one's whole self to the process.

This is not just a matter of "humanizing" meetings to make participants feel better. It's an imperative for organizations steering through the white water of fundamental change and uncertainties about the future. Holding back vital information because of fear or politics, acting from assumptions that may no longer be true, or stifling innovation because it's too expensive or threatening may have life-or-death consequences. The Challenger was launched even though Morton Thiokol engineers knew and reported that it was highly dangerous. The engineers were "white-knuckled" with fear watching the launch. Imagine their horror barely a minute later....

Remember the Group in Groupware

Groupware is the enabling technology of distributed meetings. Most people think of it as just workgroup software. But effective groupware is part group dynamics, and part software. Our original 1978 definition was:

intentionally chosen group process


software to support it

There are three parts here: intention, process, and supporting technology. The purpose of the meeting, the processes to be used, the group's intentions and expectations, and the organizational culture in which the group and meeting are embedded all influence the results at least as much as the software.

Great word processing software doesn't necessarily make a great writer, and groupware doesn't guarantee effective teamwork and collaboration.

Two Merging Meeting Technologies

Historically, computer-supported electronic meetings have been of two types:

Computer conferencing has its roots in university and commercial systems from the 1970s: the Electronic Information Exchange System (EIES) at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Confer at the University of Michigan, and Notepad, a commercial system. These were all command-driven, text-based systems with private e-mail and group meeting features that emphasized conversation more than information or knowledge structures. Of these, EIES was the only system with its own high-level programming language (in today's terms, application programming interface) for creating tailored communications structures to meet specific group needs. We did our early groupware research on EIES.

Computer conferencing was developed before there were local area networks. Participants connected to host computers via modems over wide area networks.

Current systems use different architectures and methods of connecting. Examples include Lotus Notes, Collabra Share, QuestMap, and GroupSystems V TeamLink.

Electronic meeting support is a newer development and goes by a variety of names: group support systems, group decision support, "roomware," and others. It began at the University of Arizona in the mid-1980s. People in the same room use personal computers connected via local area network to rapidly generate ideas (brainstorm), cluster and organize them, and evaluate them using a variety of methods like rating, ranking, voting, and the like.

Examples include GroupSystems V, VisionQuest, Council, and QuestMap.

The distinctions between these types of systems is blurring as they merge in functionality. Lotus Notes has third-party software for generating, organizing, and evaluating ideas. GroupSystemsV, Council, and QuestMap can be used asynchronously, at different times and from different places.

The trend is toward anytime/anyplace distributed electronic meetings, using a variety of groupware tools.

What's Happening to Corporations?

Meanwhile, organizations are being squeezed, stretched, and challenged like never before to keep up with changing markets, changing technologies, and a changing workforce.

The old patterns of the industrial era no longer hold, and the new patterns are being hammered out on the anvils of our work lives. We don't even know what the new era will end up being called, even as we scramble to keep up with the transition. It's more than the Information Age, Post-Industrial Culture, or the Communications Era.

Industrial Era??? Era
StyleFormal Memo
Chain of Command
Information Exchange
Lateral Networking

The shift from hierarchy to network also means a shift from things to the connections between them. New images and metaphors for organizations include fishnets, teamnets, communities, living organisms, and even "hive mind." These all suggest a much more flexible, adaptive, resilient organization, which means that those who work in it must also be much more creative, innovative, adaptive, and resilient. Technology can help, but all depends on the quality of those computer-supported conversations.

Toward a New Definition of Human Resources

Instead of asking, "What is the information that matters and how do we most effectively manage it?" companies must start asking, "What are the relationships that matter and how can the technology most effectively support them?" -- Michael Schrage, The Wall Street Journal, March 19, 1990

For people to bring their full creativity to work, they must also bring parts of themselves that haven't been welcome in the past. David Whyte has been working in corporate America for the past seven years, bringing poetry to bear on aspects of creativity and change. In The Heart Aroused (1994), he writes:

Above all, the corporation demanding creativity from its own employees has as much changing to do as their workforce. Like water flowing from an underground spring, human creativity is the wellspring greening the desert of toil and effort, and much of what stifles us in the workplace is the immense unconscious effort on the part of individuals and organizations alike to dam its flow. (page 21)

Whyte is describing that we call a "part-person workplace." Up until now, organizations only wanted and rewarded the "useful," efficient, and effective parts of ourselves, the ones that did the job and had no needs outside the company. Family, personal growth, personal issues, avocations, heart, and soul were left at the door. In return, companies promised relatively stable employment and security.

Part-Person Workplace

But that has all changed in the aftermath of downsizing and reengineering, as companies slough off layers of management and support personnel in order to survive in a turbulent global marketplace. Not only do organizations need to be "lean and mean," they also have to be smart, adaptive, responsive, and resilient. They need those creative, questioning, independent, innovative parts of ourselves that can't be managed. They need us to bring our whole selves to work, to be authentic, to tell the truth even when it's unpopular, to approach work as an opportunity for continuous learning about how to improve and do it better. Remember the Morton Thiokol engineers...

We call this a "whole-person workplace."

Whole-Person Workplace

Whyte describes it this way:

Preserving the soul means that we come out of hiding at last and bring more of ourselves into the workplace. Especially the parts that do not "belong" to the company. In a sense, the very part of us that doesn't have the least interest in the organization is our greatest offering to it. It is the part that opens the window of the imagination and allows fresh air into the meeting room. It is the part that can put its foot on the brake when the organization is running itself off a cliff. It's the part that can identify unethical behavior and remind everyone what the real priorities are. It is the part that refuses to shame itself or others in order to make its way through the organization. In short, its identity is not locked into the very fears that stop an organization from having the perspectives and adaptability to save itself. (p. 292)

Distributed Meetings

Whyte speaks of opening the window of the imagination to bring fresh air into the meeting room. How can that be done in distributed meetings where there isn't even a "room" in which people meet?

Without intention and consistent effort to the contrary, distributed meetings tend to reflect a part-person workplace:

We'll describe ways to overcome these problems in later sections. First, let's look at each of them in more detail.

The technology can encourage formality. The technology only uses some modalities (text, audio, graphics, video) and can distance us from each other. Even with video links you're not experiencing the richness of someone's presence. And it's easy to focus attention on the technology itself rather than the people involved, especially in situations where there is disagreement, tension, or high stress. We've watched people using electronic meeting software in a room focus on the screen and gesture toward the computer rather than the rest of the group. (A tip: Whenever the computers are not being used in an electronic meeting room, turn off the monitors or close the laptops so people relate to each other and the facilitator.)

Written communication tends to be more formal than spoken words. Computer conferencing and electronic meeting systems are generally text-based, even with features for rich text and embedded objects like spreadsheets, graphics, and the like. There are tremendous advantages to text, particularly in the areas of indexing and searching. And writing is a powerful method of making thinking tangible, of moving it out of your head onto the screen so it can be examined, considered, and refined. We will return to this point later in the discussion of mental models.

Written memos and reports are supposed to be business-like and impersonal. That is, they emphasize facts, thinking, opinions that can be defended, and so on. They usually don't include the informal social chit-chat ("seen any good movies lately?" "how's the family?" "did you catch the game last night?") that is so important for developing and maintaining rapport and trust in relationships. They also don't include emotion or expressions of heart and soul.

The written word is not the limitation; it's how we use it. Love letters, poetry, inspirational writing, great literature all touch our humanity and help us understand ourselves and each other at a deeper level. If we simply move our memo-style communication into distributed meetings, they will feel formal, impersonal, distant. If we supplement that style where appropriate to include personal comments, social "grease," words of encouragement and appreciation, and the like, distributed meetings take on a fuller dimension. A friend in local government told us with delight that she had begun sending friends a quote of the day through the e-mail system. It opened up a whole new channel for her to relate to co-workers that wasn't intrusive or demanding on their time.

You can't see each other's body language. Body language, gestures, and facial expressions are major ways in which we communicate with each other, in addition to tone of voice and what's said and how. Notice how someone talking on the telephone gestures and changes positions, even though the listener can't see him. In a distributed meeting, these cues and clues to making meaning together are absent. They must be compensated for through other means. Video and audio links help but do not fully overcome this limitation.

It's easy to hold back, hold out, or go along. Usually when you receive on-line communication, you are alone at the computer. No one can see your immediate reaction, so they don't know if your response matches it. If you are holding back information or an emotional response to be tactful or because you're afraid of the consequences, it's harder for someone to tell. There is also less social pressure in a distributed meeting than face-to-face because it's harder to use the force of the group to try to manipulate someone into doing something. He can hold out and continue to disagree, especially if he doesn't feel heard. And unless the facilitator takes extra care to draw everyone into the conversation, it's easy to be a spectator, reading and not commenting very much, just going along with the flow.

It's easy to feel unheard, misunderstood, ignored. If your comments are not acknowledged, or if people don't respond to you in some personal way, it's easy to feel disengaged and distant from the meeting. Even worse, sometimes people read comments quickly, draw conclusions that may not be true, and respond in haste, leading to further misunderstandings and confusions (vicious circles). These can be difficult to sort out and remedy on line.

It takes confidence to speak your piece without immediate feedback. Most of us have strong needs to be liked and approved of. In a face-to-face meeting if you say something about which others disagree or have reservations, you know immediately and can try to clarify your own and others' thinking about it directly. In a distributed meeting you may not get a response for hours or days. If you are taking the risk to communicate something on line that goes against conventional wisdom in the organization, it takes a double dose of courage: one to risk in the first place and the second to live with the anxiety of not knowing the response right away.

Three Ways to Humanize Distributed Electronic Meetings

Despite all these challenges of the medium, more and more work is taking place electronically. What can be done to overcome them?

There are three approaches to making distributed meetings more human, connected, effective, and satisfying:

The first involves basic meeting planning and management and should be familiar territory. The second may involve learning new skills and habits for on-line communication. The third is a frontier where a variety of organizational development methods may be applied to electronic meetings.

1. Planning Matters

Plan early and well. As Mary O'Hara-Devereaux and Robert Johansen note in GlobalWork: Bridging Distance, Culture and Time, "Early and extensive preparation for electronic meetings is essential. Distributed teams that have participated in many regularly scheduled meetings may require less formality than less experienced teams, but it's hard to overplan and oversupport distributed meetings." (p. 126)

A. Communicate the purpose of the meeting, the agenda or schedule, and desired outcomes.
B. Get agreement on norms and guidelines
C. Understand and fill essential roles
D. Include participant introductions
E. Fit the meeting to the appropriate stage in group and task development

1.A. Common meeting purposes include:

It's important for participants to know what kind of meeting is being held so they know what kinds of things are expected of them. For example, in a decision making meeting, it's critical to communicate who will be making the decision -- the group itself (and by what criteria?) or a decision maker with input from the group?

An agenda and desired outcomes are important, even for a distributed meeting for informal information exchange that lasts days, weeks, or months. The agenda tells what will be done, by whom, when, and how they will go about it. Without desired outcomes or success criteria, it's hard to know if you've reached your goal or gotten results.

1.B. Norms and guidelines for distributed meetings have similarities and differences to face-to-face meetings. (No smoking does not apply on line.) Here are a few of the things you may want to consider, depending on the group and the meeting. Choose what's appropriate, discuss and refine with participants, and make the guidelines explicit.

1.C. Meeting roles include:
This is like face-to-face meetings, with two exceptions. Effective in-person meetings often have a recorder (sometimes the facilitator) who writes major points and participants' contributions on flip charts, thus forming a "group memory" that can be referred to during and after the meeting. A distributed meeting is self-recording.

However, the verbatim transcript of an electronic meeting will not highlight important points or produce summaries and integrate themes. That's a human task, although software tools like keywords, hypertext links, and visual maps are very helpful. This is the role of an integrator or weaver, someone who sees patterns and make connections between ideas and between people. A weaver integrates and synthesizes key points and themes and may provide periodic summaries of material. As a weaver, you add value to the meeting by creating knowledge out of information. Any participant can be a weaver.

The facilitator or moderator is an important on-line presence. As facilitator, you clarify and get agreement on the purpose, agenda, and guidelines for the meeting. You keep the conversation open, flowing, and on topic, helping the group when it gets off track or stuck in unproductive behavior. You pay attention to the agenda and the energy in the group. You protect individuals and ideas from personal attack by others (flaming) and encourage participation by bringing out all the voices in the group (to reduce lurking). Perhaps most important, you model effective on-line communication skills (described below).

1.D. Participant introductions are important to bring everyone's "voice" into the distributed meeting "room" and establish the sense of the whole group. With an already formed group, this can be as simple as including a list of names, titles, and locations. Where the software allows graphics, a display of names in a circle or a map of participants' locations can be very effective. You can ask participants to check in themselves by saying "Hello, I'm here" in one way or another. Or you can ask for self-introductions, including their intentions and expectations for the meeting.

1.E. Different group and task stages have different dynamics and needs. In planning for and facilitating the meeting, consider where the group is in its life together. Is it new, just forming, getting acquainted and developing its shared identity, testing boundaries and building trust? Is it well-established and more focused on its task than on its relationships? Is it toward the end of its work, moving toward completion, reflection, and renewal?

At what stage is the task? Is it at the generative beginning stages of vision, idea, and possibility that have not yet taken form? Is it in the blood, sweat, and tears middle where there is lots of interaction and problem solving going on? Is it toward the end, with lots of refining and polishing?

2. Bring the Human Touch On Line

There are many ways to bring high-touch into high-tech distributed meetings. Here are a few simple ways to be more human on line:

A. Presence
B. Active and compassionate listening
C. Golden Rules of On-Line Communication
D. Making up for lack of body language and nonverbal communication
E. Writing with others in mind

2.A. Bringing presence to on-line communication is simply a matter of taking time to actually read what others have written, reflect on what is true for you before responding, and to pay attention to what you write and how you express it.

The word "memorandum" comes from Middle English, "let it be remembered," from Latin, from memorare, to remember, from memor, mindful.

Presence is what makes on-line communication mindful.

2.B. Active and compassionate listening is even more important in distributed meetings than face-to-face. Without body language and nonverbals, it's hard to know if you understand or are understood. Active listening is paraphrasing for the purpose of understanding. "Let me see if I understand your point. You're saying..." Often active listening surfaces assumptions of which you and/or the other person were unaware.

Compassionate listening is paying attention to what's behind the words as well as the words themselves (the music as well as the song). It is listening from the heart as well as the mind. Listen compassionately for hidden assumptions, what's unspoken, what's undiscussable, what's missing and can't be said. It may or may not be appropriate to bring those out in the group. Perhaps a private communication is better or perhaps keeping silent is more timely.

2.C. There are several Golden Rules of On-Line Communication:

2.D. Over the past twenty years, people have developed a number of ways for making up for lack of body language and nonverbal cues. A simple way is to write more expressively, including some of what you're feeling as well as thinking. Another is to indicate affect explicitly with words such as <grin>, (chuckle), ^shrug^, or with "emoticons" like the ever-popular smiley as viewed from the side :-) There are whole lexicons of "emoticons" used on public systems. As always, the trick is to remember what they mean (wink, ;-).

Where the software allows, use fonts and color for emphasis and to indicate affect.

Be careful with wry, ironic, or sarcastic humor which can be easily misunderstood. Indicate your humorous or tongue-in-cheek intent as above.

Say explicitly if you understand, agree, or disagree. No one can see your nods, smiles, or puzzled looks. Similarly, be explicit with acknowledgment and praise. "Great idea!" "Thanks for the tip."

When in doubt, ask for clarification or reassurance. Others may not be as skilled in expressing themselves on line yet.

2.E. Participating in a distributed meeting involves writing with others in mind. Reading material on a screen is more taxing than on paper. Use shorter paragraphs with plenty of "white space" to make your comments easier to read. Use a separate item for each major topic of conversation instead of putting everything into one long comment. This makes it more likely that people will respond, and it's also easier to find things later on when they are appropriately "chunked."

Make it clear what you are responding to. For example, if someone asks a question, like is this change in plans all right with you, either include it verbatim in the response or refer to it unambiguously, rather than simply answering "Yes, it's great." By the time your response is added to the meeting, another question may have been inserted into the conversation and it may not be clear to what you are agreeing.

Use whatever software tools are available to weave conversation into knowledge. The paradox of distributed meetings is that they unfold as conversation, jumping from topic to topic, but useful knowledge is organized by content to produce meaning. The challenge is to organize conversation with minimum effort into meaningful patterns as it unfolds. References, threads, hypertext links, visual maps, and indexes are all useful. In addition, weavers may produce summaries and higher-level integrations of material.

Remember the Golden Rules of On-Line Communication.

3. Take a Whole-Person Approach

The fields of organizational development, organizational learning, and psychology provide many tools and approaches for bringing more of ourselves to the workplace and the meetings within it, distributed and otherwise. We focus here on several that are practical and proven in face-to-face settings but may be new to the electronic medium.

A. Breaking vicious circles
B. Surfacing assumptions and discovering mental models
C. Self-differentiating
D. Moving from a mindset of security/control to learning/discovery
E. Bringing soul on line

3.A. A vicious circle (or cycle) is a reinforcing process in which a small change builds on itself, in this case for the worse. Examples include hoarding, price wars, arms races, etc. Its positive counterpart is a virtuous circle, such as the positive effects of exercise reinforcing the desire to exercise more, or marketing by word of mouth from satisfied customers.

Our mental models and actions with each other are reinforcing processes, either for better or worse.

Vicious Circles

This is particularly important in distributed meetings because the technology amplifies and accelerates (for better or worse) whatever organizational culture fills the electronic meeting container, further reinforcing virtuous or vicious cycles.

A common example is a disempowerment routine in which a manager wants to empower his team but his mental models lead to actions that have the opposite effect. In turn, the team misinterprets those actions and develops mental models and actions which make things worse. Everyone is acting from what s/he believes is true, but their thinking is based on false assumptions and conclusions. This example is from Robert Putnam.

Disempowerment Routine

How can you break vicious circles, let alone turn them into positively reinforcing, virtuous ones? First, anyone in the group can begin to sense that something is wrong, that no matter what anyone does, things just keep getting worse. If you suspect it's a vicious circle, you can draw the circle, begin to fill in the boxes, and identify the pattern at work. You can involve others in seeing the pattern and filling in the boxes themselves so you can all understand more fully what's happening. Then begin to collaborate on redesigning actions that will reinforce different, more positive and constructive mental models. Finally, begin to practice and reinforce the change you all agree you want to see.

Remember to be compassionate with yourself and others. Such change takes time and is seldom easy. It requires building new habits and new muscle, just like dieting or beginning an exercise program. But this involves other people and their habits of thinking and acting, so it's a much more complex change. If possible, make an explicit learning contract with others with whom you want to make this change so you can help each other.

In a distributed meeting environment, such vicious circles can develop quickly, where disagreement spirals out of control (flaming) or someone gets hurt or paranoid about an off-the-cuff remark. There are many ways a distributed meeting can devolve because of mistaken conclusions and resulting actions. When in doubt, ask for clarification, do a lot of active listening, encourage everyone to examine their data and assumptions, draw out those who suddenly become quiet, and the like. As Putnam suggests, trust that you and others are interested in and capable of learning. Encourage clear thinking and constructive action to move in a more virtuous direction. Ask about different viewpoints, raise issues and concerns, and help yourself and others discover faulty reasoning and unintended consequences of actions.

3.B. Discovering our mental models is not always easy. We may be unaware of the underlying beliefs and assumptions that shape our actions. Chris Argyris developed a simple tool called the left-hand column to articulate what we don't normally say. It can help us see how we try to shape and control a situation to keep from dealing with the thoughts and feelings we're afraid to express.

Select a situation, past or present, which you feel isn't working very well. Then write out a sample of the exchange in two columns. On the right side, put what you said and what the other(s) said. On the left side, put what you were thinking but not saying.

What Manager ThinksWhat is Said
Mgr: If I speak up, they may just go along.Mgr: Let's hear your ideas.
Mgr: I've heard this before.Team: On one hand... and on the other...
Mgr: This is useless! Better hide frustration.Mgr: Please make your recommendation.
Mgr: Why won't they lead?Team: Let's go around and hear from everyone.

(For a further discussion of left-hand columns, see Peter Senge's The Fifth Discipline, pp. 195-198.)

Your left-hand column will begin to show you some of your hidden parts: assumptions, snap judgments, conclusions that may not be based on data, reactions, and the like. In the heat of the moment in a face-to-face or on-line conversation, you may not have the opportunity to observe the voice of your left-hand column, but you can be sure it's egging you on. Taking the time to reflect and write it out may reveal some interesting and useful surprises.

In a distributed meeting environment, it may be too risky to actually share left-hand column exercises with each other. But you can use your personal computer as a private notebook to record your own left-hand column scripts. (A tip: In a word processing program like Microsoft Word, use a two-column table. In Lotus Notes, create a personal database and use a two-column table in each document. You can even paste other documents into either column there.) Then share any insights or changes in thinking and behavior that are appropriate.

If the whole group knows how to use the left-hand column tool, you can use the term as shorthand later on in a distributed meeting. "What's your left-hand column on this?"

3.C. Once you know more about what you're thinking, feeling, and wanting, the next step is to take the risk to express it. This is called leading by self-differentiating. It's a method that comes from family systems therapy and has been adapted for learning teams and organizations by Ron Short. It's a very powerful way to bring our hidden selves and what we know back to the table.

As Short describes it in A Special Kind of Leadership (1991), when people are not being truly who they are, they are in a state called undifferentiated fusion.

It is undifferentiated because nobody speaks for his or her Self. It is fused because when individuals do not speak for themselves, everybody predicts, guesses, and even believes their guesses about what is in the other's head.... The underlying fear has everybody unconsciously assuming that their well-being is contingent upon others. "If (he, she, they, one) would only change............., then, and only then, I (or my conditions) would change for the better. (pages 6 and 9)

Note the similarities to vicious circles and to unconscious left-hand columns. It's also very easy to try to change others or the situation instead of looking at our own thinking and actions, thus hiding even more. We'll look in more detail at this security/control mindset in the next section.

Success and sometimes even survival depends on self-differentiating, moving out of the groupthink of undifferentiated fusion. A group of President Kennedy's "best and brightest" made the decision to invade Cuba, even though individual members had decisive information that it would surely fail. Remember the Morton Thiokol engineers and the Challenger disaster.

How can we make the transition out of undifferentiated fusion? At least one person has to begin to speak for herself and be "differentiated." It takes courage and maturity to stand up in spite of pressures to conform, to understand your own motives, feelings, and thoughts, to communicate them clearly, to inquire about others' motives, feelings, and thoughts, and to do all of that appropriately, without blame or judgment. This leads to a state called differentiated clarity.

There are real risks. You might lose your job, or worse. (What's your left-hand column? How can it help you assess likely and projected risks?)

Short characterizes this transition as "Ugh!" as one does the hard and scary work to get clear and pull oneself out of the fused state.

Self-Differentiation Is Hard Work

As Short describes it (page 45):

The differentiated leader is a more transparent Self, taking risks with appropriate people. Understands and acknowledges his or her internal motives, feelings, and thoughts.
and does all the above by separating

The differentiated leader's actions model a new way of being and doing for the rest of the group. If others follow suit, do their own hard work, and begin to act from differentiated clarity, the whole system will pop from the vicious cycle of undifferentiated fusion to the virtuous cycle of differentiated creativity.

But It’s Worth It

In a distributed meeting, it's both easier and harder to self-differentiate.

Because you can take time to reflect and craft your responses, you can slow down the action for yourself, do a left-hand column or otherwise get in touch with what you're thinking, feeling, and wanting, and then shape your response accordingly. You also have the advantage of putting out your differentiated clarity without the immediate social pressure to conform to the group's undifferentiated confusion. You can take your stand without immediate interruption, resistance, or attack.

On the other hand, it may feel even more risky to self-differentiate on line because the time delays mean you may be getting reactions and feedback over a longer period and when you least expect them. In addition, you don't have the luxury of lots of back and forth interaction to clear up misconceptions and miscommunication. Practicing self-differentiation on line takes very good communications skills. And it's worth it.

3.D. Breaking vicious cycles, discovering your mental models, and self-differentiating all involve a mindset that Susan Campbell calls learning/discovery. In learning/discovery mode, attention goes to improving our ways of doing things instead of wasting time wishing they were different or trying to control events or other people. In that sense, it is imminently practical and efficient: embrace difficulties, learn from whatever happens, and find a better way.

Unfortunately, many of us still operate from a "security/control" mindset at least some of the time, afraid that things will turn out wrong, trying vainly to predict and control people and events. In these turbulent times, it's very easy to fall back into security/control thinking when the stakes are very high and we have to operate in environments where many things are unknowable.

Security/control thinking contributes to vicious cycles and undifferentiated fusion in groups.

In From Chaos to Confidence: Your Survival Strategies for the New Workplace (in press), Campbell contrasts these two approaches:

Avoids difficultiesEmbraces difficulties
Seeks controlSeeks learning
Uncomfortable not knowingOpen to not knowing
Denies bad newsAccepts all news
Rejects differencesAppreciates differences
BlamesLearns from "mistakes"
Expects predictabilityExpects surprise

No matter how potent the technique for humanizing distributed meetings or developing high-performance teamwork, creative collaboration, organizational redesign, and the like, it will not succeed if used from the security/control mindset. The fear of failure and need to control (mental model) lead to controlling behaviors which evoke resistance from others. This vicious cycle erodes trust over time, just making things worse.

However, with a sincere intent to learn, to be open to diverse points of view and whatever information is available, and to admit and correct mistakes, a group can engage in respectful behaviors that build trust and increase learning, moving toward Short's state of differentiated creativity.

Need to Control or Intent to Learn

Campbell has a number of tools for assessing your learning/discovery potential. Here is a very short excerpt. Rate yourself by how often you make statements like these. If never or rarely, rate it 0. If occasionally, 1. If the statement is characteristic of your style, rate it 2.

___ 1. Tell me more about why you feel/think/see it that way.
___ 2. Tell me how I could have done/said this differently.
___ 3. I see it differently than that. May I tell you how I see it?
___ 4. I made a mistake/I was in error.
___ 5. If I had it to do over, I would ___________.

The highest score is 10, and the higher the score, the more learning/discovery resources you have. Note which one(s), if any, felt more risky or challenging for you. And remember, the underlying intention is the key. Any of these statements, even though they emphasize openness and learning, can be made from a security/control or learning/discovery mindset. Imagine the tone of voice of someone saying #2 aggressively and then out of real desire to try a new way.

In a distributed meeting, tone of voice is usually absent, so it may be more difficult to discern which mindset someone is using. This is a time for compassionate listening, hearing the "music" behind the words, not just the words themselves. Is there a mismatch between what someone is saying and doing? Do you notice a lot of left-hand column voices in your head when you read someone else's comments? What would it take for you to feel secure enough yourself to be in learning/discovery mode in the midst of others acting from security/control? How can you self-differentiate enough to begin creating an environment for learning and change?

This is one of the things a skilled facilitator does in a distributed meeting. Ideally, the facilitator does not have a personal stake in the matter at hand and so can pay attention to the group process and how well people are working together. She can use these learning facilitator techniques:

3.E. Ultimately, taking a whole-person approach means welcoming all the parts of ourselves into the workplace -- even bringing soul on line. This is very risky business indeed.

David Whyte says it powerfully:

Continually calling on its managers and line workers for more creativity, dedication, and adaptability, the American corporate world is tiptoeing for the first time in its very short history into the very place from whence that dedication, creativity, and adaptability must come: the turbulent place where the soul of an individual is formed and finds expression....

[T]he sound and the fury of an individual's creative life are the elemental waters missing from the dehydrated workday. The frightening emptiness of existence also contains a place of nourishment and repose, a blessed opportunity for calm at the center of the corporate whirlwind. From the organizational side, if the corporations ignore the darker underbelly of their employees' lives for a well-meaning approach, emphasizing only the positive, they will be forced to rely on expensive management pyramids to manipulate their workers at the price of commitment. Adaptability and native creativity on the part of the workforce come through the door only with their passions. Their passions come only with their souls. Their souls love the hidden springs boiling and welling at the center of existence more than they love the company. (pages 5-6 and 7)

What would it take to bring your whole self -- heart and soul -- into your distributed meetings? What is your left-hand column about that?

What is the high price of doing it -- and of not doing it -- for yourself and for the organization? Which risks are a matter of life-or-death survival?

Grappling with this head-on can be daunting. On the other hand, each new step is relatively easy. Cross-cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien offers these simple yet profound guidelines. Following them will help you create the whole-person, high-quality, knowledge-generating distributed electronic conversations your organization needs to thrive in the turbulence ahead:

The Four-Fold Way
Show up in all ways.
Pay attention to what has heart and meaning.
Tell the truth without judgment or blame.
Be open to outcomes but not attached to outcomes.


Argyris, Chris and Schon, Donald (1978). Organizational Learning: A Theory of Action Perspective. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Arrien, Angeles (1993). The Four-Fold Way. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco.

Campbell, Susan (in press). From Chaos to Confidence: Your Survival Strategies for the New Workplace. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Doyle, Michael and Straus, David (1976). How to Make Meetings Work. New York, NY: Playboy Press.

Johnson-Lenz, Peter and Trudy (1981). "Consider the Groupware: Design and Group Process Impacts on Communication in the Electronic Medium," in Hiltz, S. and Kerr, E., Studies of Computer-Mediated Communications Systems: A Synthesis of the Findings. Newark, NJ: Research Report #16, Computerized Conferencing and Communications Center, New Jersey Institute of Technology.

O'Hara-Devereaux, Mary and Johansen, Robert (1994). GlobalWork: Bridging Distance, Culture, and Time. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Putnam, Robert (1994). "Overcoming Barriers to Organizational Learning." Presented at Systems Thinking in Action '94, San Francisco, CA.

Senge, Peter (1990). The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization. New York, NY: Doubleday Currency.

Short, Ronald (1991). A Special Kind of Leadership: The Key to Learning Organizations. Seattle, WA: The Leadership Group.

Whyte, David (1994). The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America. New York, NY: Doubleday Currency.

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From on 04/18/2024 ---- item last modified on 04/19/2002.