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Summary:

A lot has been written about how to overcome the communication challenges faced by virtual teams who work together but are physically distant. What has been covered less often is the topic of the communication advantages of being distant. Experts tell us there are a few.

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A lot has been written about how to overcome the communication challenges faced by virtual teams who work together but are physically distant. What has been covered less often is the topic of the communication advantages of being far away. Experts tell us there are a few.

Hear the word negotiation, for instance, and most of us will usually think of a few folks with their sleeves rolled up hashing out a contentious issue around a table. But psychologists say that negotiation conducted at a distance can actually reduce conflict and improve outcomes.

To test a theory that negotiating at a distance boosts participants’ abstract thinking and helps them better conceive of others’ motives, Marlone Henderson, a psychology professor at the University of Texas, asked two groups of study participants to negotiate the price of a motorcycle or the division of a prize. One group was told their negotiating partner was one floor downstairs and the other that their partner was located across town. The British Psychological Society Research Digest reports the results:

The negotiating pairs who thought their partners were located further away… tended to reach more mutually agreeable terms. To test if this benefit was to do with thinking about one’s priorities more abstractly… Henderson conducted a further study in which some of the negotiating pairs were explicitly instructed to reflect on the motives underlying their negotiation goals. Receiving these instructions led participants who thought their partner was nearby to negotiate just as successfully as participants who thought their partner was on the other side of town, consistent with the idea that the perception of physical distance exerts its usual benefit by encouraging more reflective and abstract thought about negotiation goals.

Is it just negotiations that tend to get more productive with distance? According to Frans Johannson, author of The Medici Effect (via a quote on the blog of Marc Andreessen), research also reveals that virtual brainstorming beats the old-fashioned variety where participants are gathered in one place. Studies find that, “virtual groups, where people brainstormed individually, generated nearly twice as many ideas as the real groups.”

Results out of a Harvard Business School study concur that when asked to share ideas, virtual “team members felt freer to contribute–especially outside their established areas of expertise.”

Is it time to stop worrying about the downsides of virtual communication, and start focusing on the advantages instead?

Photo courtesy stock.xchng user emsago

  1. I’m not convinced about the “advantage” of distance in negotiations, particularly in a complex negotiation where there is more than one or two areas that need to be negotiated (such as purchase price and date of delivery). It looks like time or preparation is the deciding factor here, not distance.

    In a difficult negotiation — say for a labor agreement, a legislative act, or a complex business arrangement — being able to understand the other party’s (or parties’) needs is crucial to finding a win-win situation. Face-to-face interaction is necessary, although a video conference might help if in-person talk isn’t possible.

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