Effective leadership for virtual team-building: Why tone is like karma

Tone is Karma

The tone we use in communicating with others is like karma. Or at least like my own limited, westernized view of karma, as in ‘what you put out is coming back.’ Not always as directly as an echo, but somewhere along the way it is returning to you.

In my own research on this – as in my experience with situations where I have not managed my own tone well – sometimes I can see how tone shifts on my team or in an account or on a project and I can trace it back to an off-the-cuff, too-candid remark. Or a frustrated tone will come back and bite after a discussion seemed over.

Tone is an element that leaders can use to support effectiveness – at the personal and team levels – particularly as people and organizations continue to work remotely to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Tone is how you come across “entirely”

Always, and especially in a state of crisis or change, tone is how you come across entirely. When we think about tone we mainly think about the auditory – our tone of voice. Do we sound happy, sad or mad (bored, excited, hysterical)? But brains don’t just process tone, they process the language that you choose, the things you repeat, the overall tenor of the emotion you are conveying. It is the way you decide to amplify and focus on different things in your language, whether in person or in a virtual community.

One of the things that I had to learn early on, as a manager, a leader and then as a business owner, is that you can create all kinds of urgency with your tone. Sometimes that urgency is merited, and needed, and sometimes it’s not. So, if you’re feeling really urgent, and racing around, people know there’s a lot going on. You’re creating a lot of urgency with your tone. Is that the right tone for everyone right now, or is that how you are feeling? Ask yourself: “Can I create a sense of urgency but be gentle about it?”

Here’s an old analogy: picture a very full glass of water sitting on a table, and the table shakes. Whatever is in that glass is going to come out to a greater or lesser degree, depending on how much shaking is going on (obviously, there is a lot of shaking right now). Overflow will happen if people continue to pour things in an already full glass as well.

Tone control from the inside out: What do I need now?

When we are overwhelmed, when we are not holding it together particularly well anymore, we need to take a step back and figure out this question: “What do I need now?” Literally imagine for yourself: “What do I need to do to regain an authentic and balanced tone?”

What would bring you back to feeling like you are not resonating at too high a frequency or feeling paralyzed at too low a frequency? If you are not keeping a balance, you will not always be able to maintain a good tone.

Tone is one of four things that keep the ship afloat in rough seas. 

Some of us are really good fakers, but that takes energy too. Right now you need all your energy to look for opportunities to care for what needs to be cared for and to move forward.

As a leader, keeping your tone in check is a really important way to balance the overall feelings people have of hope and fear. We have to be real, and at the same time living with a challenging tone isn’t helpful. There’s also no point in being excessively sunshiny right now. That will not seem real to people.

What does my team need now? Timing, Trust, Tolerance

Tone is one of four things that keep the ship afloat in rough seas. Crisis management requires extra effort dedicated to keeping an even tone – one that is modulated to be just a little calmer than the situation.

The other extension of energy that leaders need to make is around timing. I am not talking about time management, but rather doing traffic control on the things that will change the team’s energy or direction. In crisis, some of our energy is being sucked into the crisis to process what’s happening.  Energy needs to be protected and timing is a key part of that. Some energy gets misplaced when we feel we have to “do something!!” and teams drill into things that aren’t “What Matters Most.” It’s important for leaders to determine the right timing to discuss difficult customer feedback, for example. Or to implement a needed change… on top of all of the other changes. Being deliberate about when you change the feeling and momentum of the team is important.

Trust seems like a no-brainer: we’ve all heard how important trust is for, well, almost everything good that happens. When I think about trust in the context of crisis management though, I am thinking of “trust systems” more than trusting each other interpersonally. Can we keep focused enough on what we need to do to ensure it gets done, or to renegotiate deadlines upfront? Can we create a system that without shaming anyone enables us to trust that the work is getting done?

The final element that is a universal must-have in managing through crisis is tolerance. As an armchair psychologist with 30 years experience, believe me when I tell you that people working through a crisis tend to become extreme versions of their normal personalities. Tolerating people’s excesses and gaps at this time means finding a bigger space inside of you to hold it all. It doesn’t make sense to let things go that absolutely need to be addressed – i.e., don’t tolerate conflict on the team. But there will also be meanderings, worries, ideating and forgetting that are fleeting and would better be dealt with by observing with compassion and objectivity. Before you respond to people’s extremes, ask yourself: “What do I really want?”

We create our reality with our tone, words and actions. Consider:

  1. Do you have a good perspective on your tone?
  2. Do you have people who will tell you when your tone is not helping people work effectively?
  3. Is self care on your calendar?
  4. Can you stop yourself and re-tool your tone if it might be making people feel you’re signalling issues, problems or displeasure indirectly?
  5. Do you address issues of tone (excessive negativity or positivity, urgency or lack of urgency) in your team and encourage a realistic tone that promotes ease and not undue tension?

So pay attention to your tone. Try to communicate from a place where you feel grounded and clear. If you don’t feel grounded and clear, stop and think: what’s one thing I can do right now to bring my tone back into balance? And also consider timing, trust and tolerance to keep your team’s ship on a steady course in a sea of challenges.

A final note on “tone policing”

When I first wrote this piece, George Floyd was still alive. My comments on tone above relate to leadership effectiveness in the teams, companies and networks we work in; however, we also must be aware of the notion of “tone policing,” used to shut down activists with comments like “you’re too angry; no one will listen if you sound like that.” As we at Pollinate continue to work through any part we may play in systemic racism, I want to be clear that when I say “watch your tone,” I am not referring to Black Lives Matter or other activists. The anger, despair and disappointment expressed through BLM are valid and necessary. Change is required.

— Christy


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