Archive for August, 2011
I just finished up a three-day training session via video teleconference. It’s been a long time since I had nightmares before a delivery, but this one really had me worried.
It’s not that I’d never used VTC technology before; I had, but only for short, several-hour sessions. Everything you read says that VTC and webinar formats are not meant for multi-day training sessions, that it’s too long a time for folks to be sitting and staring at a screen. Not only that, but my participants consisted of a mixed group—nine people in a boardroom together, and ten people sitting by themselves in front of a laptop webcam. I thought surely the laptop folks would be comatose by the second day, and I worried that they would feel too isolated.
While I still have a lot to learn, I can now say that the session went better than expected. Here are some things I learned:
1. We had a couple additional video conference bridges set up in addition to the main bridge, and this was critical for keeping everyone involved because it allowed me to do small group activities, discussions and case studies with the folks who were by themselves. The boardroom folks would stay on the main bridge and just work with each other in the room, but the other participants would log out of the main bridge and connect with each other on the breakout bridges in smaller groups. I would give them specific time limits and then they’d come back and report out. This worked beautifully, and there were only a few activities in my program that I wasn’t able to adapt for virtual use.
2. It’s critical to spend time setting norms for a session like this. The main things I asked of people were to wave a white sheet of paper at me when they wanted to speak, and to synchronize their watches with mine and be very conscientious about coming back from breaks and breakouts on time. We did well with the timing, but not so well with the white paper. I could not always see people waving paper at me, particularly in the boardroom, so I began to let people speak up whenever they wanted to and the result was too much “stepping on” each other’s audio. I will need to work on this next time.
3. Lastly, we all know about the time lag with VTC but I learned that even when you’re aware of it you don’t really know what you’re doing without practice. It wasn’t until the end of the session that some of my folks told me I wasn’t waiting long enough after I asked for questions and comments. I guess I didn’t really understand just how long that time lag truly is.
Can I say that it was great fun to do a virtual session, that I enjoyed the interaction as much as I do when I have everyone in the room with me? No, definitely not. But I will say that I have finally gotten on the bus. Especially for those of us who work with federal agencies, we must be sensitive to restricted travel budgets right now. We can find ways to work around the need for travel or we can watch that bus leaving without us.
Confirmation bias is one of my favorite topics, in work and in life. We all tend to pay more attention to observations that confirm our beliefs and filter out observations that challenge them. Where there are differences amongst us, they lie in the degree of awareness we have about confirmation bias and the efforts we make — or don’t make — to resist the bias and expand our perspective.
Jeffrey Saltzman recently blogged about a phenomenon called “filter bubbles,” which refers to a trend in internet search engines. “It used to be that when you searched the internet you got results that were wide open… (but) today’s search engines are becoming smarter,” he says. They filter your results according to your browsing and purchasing history, so that you get the kind of results that agree with your previous interests, opinions and consumer behavior. So instead of broadening your perspective on a topic, they confirm what you already know and believe.
It’s institutionalized confirmation bias.
This can’t possibly be a good thing. One of my biggest pet peeves is people who have strongly-held political, social and economic opinions and very little knowledge to back them up. They derive their opinions from Fox News or MSNBC commentators and spout them belligerently at every opportunity as if they were subject matter experts. When highly educated, experienced experts in a field can’t even agree on something (e.g. how to fix the current problems with our economy) why does someone with no education or experience in the field at all think they know the answers?
But many of us live in this filter bubble. Google a topic and you’ll get whatever you’re looking for, already sorted and selected to confirm what you already believe. I’ve left many a cocktail party early, in a state of annoyance, because of this very thing. Looks like it’s only going to get worse.
I love a good lawyer joke as much as the next guy, but here’s where the training that attorneys go through puts them at an advantage. They learn to always question what looks obvious, always look at it from the other perspective, always play the devil’s advocate. We would do well to learn a thing or two from them. Especially when we’re browsing the internet.
Shawn Achor had a great blog post on Harvard Business Review last week called “What Giving Gets You at the Office.” Two decades of research, Achor says, prove that the level of social support you receive in your work directly correlates to your level of engagement and job satisfaction. But recently he learned something by asking the question in a new way; the correlation is even higher if you are a provider of social support than it is when you’re on the receiving end. In other words, what goes around comes around.
I like this. I spent hours this morning thinking back through all my work experiences and categorizing them, and sure enough, all my most fulfilling experiences were in organizations where I felt secure and accepted enough to focus on supporting and helping my colleagues. There’s a chicken-and-egg dilemma for me though: I only felt like I could be a supporter of my co-workers if I felt that I had their support too. In low-trust environments, I was too focused on watching my back.
So where does it start? What has to happen first? Like most things I think it comes back to senior leadership. They must create that supportive culture first, and if they don’t, it will be tough for even the most altruistic-minded worker to focus on helping colleagues. Where the right leadership is missing you have a classic “CYA” culture, where everyone is focused on defending themselves. This is something I’m seeing a lot of in federal agencies right now, no doubt because the public is so focused on fixing blame for the problems with our economy.
But I also have to say something that I always tell team building participants. Don’t get stuck in never-ending vicious circle of “I’ll do it if someone else does first.” Take the first step to change your workplace culture and show your colleagues some support. If you always wait for someone else to make the first move, everyone will just keep standing still.