Virtual tools such as email and instant messaging and Skype can be just as effective as face-to-face meetings. It all depends on orientation and mindsets.
Partly it’s a practical question - is it worth the time and expense to travel around the world to attend a meeting? But more importantly, it raises the question of whether communication channels - the ability to see and hear others, and directly respond to them - will affect the quality of negotiations and group decision making.
That choice essentially comes down to the nature of existing (or non-existing) relationships, according to new research from INSEAD and the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. “The success or failure of negotiations and group decision making all depends on people’s attitudes and their history,” says Roderick Swaab, principal researcher and an assistant professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD. ‘Face time’ may well be one of the best ways to improve trust in relationships and develop camaraderie between colleagues, but it’s not always required in negotiations and group decision situations — in fact, it can even be detrimental, Swaab’s research uncovered.
What’s preferred when?
When unacquainted individuals entered into a negotiation or group decision making situation, they found that the use of richer communication channels—face-to-face and video conferencing—that allowed people to see and hear each other, helped establish rapport and increased the likelihood of achieving high quality outcomes. Nonverbal cues such as tone of voice, facial expression and gestures allowed these communicators to learn more about the other side and potentially trust them enough to share and integrate information. The researchers also found that richer channels contributed to higher quality outcomes in larger groups and more complex tasks.
When team members already share healthy working relationships from prior interactions and meetings, seeing and hearing each other - whether it’s face-to-face or via video conference, or Skype - becomes less important and virtual interactions over email and instant messaging are just as likely to yield similar high-quality outcomes, explains Swaab. In negotiations, high quality outcomes are likely to occur when parties engage in making tradeoffs and reach mutually beneficial agreements, or when teams surface all the necessary information to make the best decisions. “When there is a pre-existing relationship that fosters a cooperative attitude, people think the best of their partners and communication is interpreted with the best of intentions and inherent levels of trust” he adds. As a result, face-to-face interaction becomes less important for trading off concessions and sharing information, Swaab explains.
However, when partners have experienced disagreements and conflict or seeking personal gain only, richer communication channels actually decreased the likelihood of high quality outcomes, the study showed. As communication channels do “not only transmit factual information but can also intensify feelings, the ability to see, hear, or directly respond to others’ claims has the potential to escalate already existing non-cooperative predispositions,” the researchers report. When entering tense discussions, they suggest restricting communication (face-to-face or electronically) and introducing a third party to resolve the conflict.
The genesis for Swaab’s research stems from contradictory findings in existing - and extensive - literature on the subject, where some studies found face-to-face contact to be vital for mutually satisfactory outcomes while others found no effect in being able to see and hear each other. To explore and synthesise the discrepancies, Swaab and his team developed a theoretical model and conducted two meta-analyses on every relevant study that compared the impact of communication channels on negotiation and group decision making outcomes, separately for negotiations and group decision making. “Our mission was to resolve these contradictions and put forward a model that parsimoniously explains the full range of findings,” explains Swaab.
As virtual teams increasingly operate across geographies and cultures, the professors examined the impact of peoples’ cultural backgrounds. They found that when people were unacquainted the positive impact of rich communication channels was more pronounced in Western cultures than in Eastern cultures. “Communicators within an interdependent (Eastern) cultural context, approach the average conversation with a more cooperative orientation,” explains Swaab, and as a result, “may be less strongly affected by the presence or absence of rich communication channels both in negotiations and when making group decisions.” However, for independent cultures such as those in the West, where negotiators and decision makers likely have neutral orientations, communication channels were necessary to achieve high quality outcomes, he says.
The paper was co-authored with Adam Galinksy, Morris and Alice Kaplan Professor of Ethics and Decision in Management, Adeline Barry Davee Professor of Management & Organizations Victoria Medvec and IBM Professor of Regulation and Competitive Practice Daniel Diermeier, all of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.
The study, “The Communication Orientation Model: Explaining the Diverse Effects of Sight, Sound, and Synchronicity on Negotiation and Group Decision Making Outcomes,” will appear in a forthcoming issue of Personality and Social Psychology Review.