December 17, 2020

How most teams are silently killing their culture and productivity - with Josh Hammonds Ph.D.

Mitchell Dong
Head of Community

Josh Hammonds has spent his entire career focused on team communication and is currently a professor at Rollins university. There are about 137 quotable moments in this short interview. Enjoy (transcript case you only want 7% of Josh's message)


Little - Hey, Josh. I'm wondering if we can kick off a conversation about the power of nonverbal communication and how video delivers the full spectrum of communication. As you know, we've chosen asynchronous video is the core feature of our product and it's because we believe that it delivers the full spectrum. And this is an area I know, you know, a lot about. So I'm wondering if you could just maybe start to tell us a little bit about yourself and career and why you chose to focus your PhD on team communication.

Hammonds - Hey, Josh. Thanks so much for hosting this conversation. It has been fantastic getting to know you over the past couple of weeks. I'm very excited to see what's happening with Volley, and it's a pleasure to chat with you about this. So I guess back to your original question, why would someone get an advanced degree in the field of communication? Well, listen, I'll say this about the field of communication, our greatest strength and weakness is within the breadth of what we study, right? So what do I mean by that? Well, we can look at mass communication, telecommunications, public relations, interpersonal communication. The list goes on and on. But to me I think the lifeblood of understanding businesses and how they operate and the relationships within there. The key to understanding that is by understanding communication and the field of communication. So I decided to take the route and look at human communication or team communication because I really think that when you understand how people communicate with each other, you can understand those relationships. You can understand goals, you can understand how that affects how businesses operate. And so I've looked at that within the business and the corporate setting for awhile. 

And so if you look at the research lately, right, business leaders and business researchers are very interested in management style and what's the best management style. And how do you make a good manager? And I think there's value in understanding how managers are wired and the different prototypes of a manager. But to me, it all hinges on how well they communicate. And so how a manager frames their message, the words they choose to use to send out to their team, the medium that they use to send their message to the team. That, to me tells me whether or not they're a successful manager, what type of manager they are and how competent they are. And so it isn't necessarily what, you know, as a manager, but it's how well you can communicate to your team that determines your success as a manager.

And I do believe the same goes with coworkers and other teammates within businesses. The culture that you create in your team is completely contingent upon the communication that occurs within that team. So not just the content, right? The things that you talk about, but also the way in which that's framed the tone, right? Are they using humor? Is there lightheartedness mixed with assertiveness and, and determination? And so to me, when I, when I want to understand team culture within a business, I look at how they are communicating with each other, how they're framing their message, how it's being delivered to each other, interpersonally via email memo, video, right phone, voice, all of those things matter to me. And that tells me about the culture. 

So to me, communication is both how work gets done, but it's also how culture is formed. And that's why I've devoted a large chunk of my professional career to understanding really the, what, the, how, and the best practices of communication.

Little - Yes. I love the idea that culture is communication is culture. That communication is at the heart of everything that is your organization. It is your DNA. It is how culture is created. That's a beautiful idea. Makes me want to dive into nonverbals the importance of nonverbal communication. We know instinctively that nonverbal communication is important when building relationships. I've heard anywhere from 70 to 93% of communication is nonverbal. But I'm wondering how important is nonverbal communication when it comes to team communication? What do you think?

Hammonds - Ah, yes. Nonverbal communication. Well, it's like, we've always said, it's not what you say. It's how you say it. Right? And so the range you mentioned about how much of our communication style is nonverbal is accurate. So depending on the research design and how those nonverbal messages are coded and accounted for researchers, tell us that somewhere between 73 and 90% of our face-to-face communication is nonverbal. So what does that mean? Well, that means every single time I send you an email or a text message, a significant portion of that message information that could potentially that story is missing. 

So every time we communicate, there are two dimensions to our message. There's a content dimension and a relational dimension. The content dimension is the, is the data, the facts, the directives, right? But the inflection, the tone, the volume, the rate, all of those pieces of information tell us a more complete story. How important is that to the sender? What's the tone, what's the emotion, how assertive? And so as the receiver, it tells me what matters to you most when I can pick up on those. And that way I can more accurately interpret your message. So now texting and email have completely changed the way that we do work and how we work in teams. It allows the employee complete autonomy to sort of absorb that message, think about it, respond and send it back. But as email and texting as a medium have increased in the workplace, so have the frustrations. So you'll have people say, what did that last email mean? I don't know. What, did they mean by that? What about that last text message, were you angry? Were you just being assertive? Maybe you were just being brief, right? And so those relational cues aren't there within that email and text message. So technology responds, right. And technology creates emoji culture. And so with winky faces, smiley faces and yes, some punctuation, we can complete that narrative just a little bit more to a medium that was otherwise just a content based medium 

Fast forward, a bit later, and then we have voice messages. And so the interesting thing about voice messages is that the research is quite clear that when you listen to a person, explain a message and you can listen to their voice. You actually pick up on things that do two things. The first thing that does is actually increases your memory. And in fact, you'll remember that message more when you hear someone explain it more so than a text message, but then it also connects you relationally to the sender. And so what do I mean by that? It builds trust. It builds empathy and otherwise just a healthier relational tie with that person. That's explaining the message, which works to build a more healthy, collaborative work culture. 

So fast forward, even more. And now we're dealing with video messaging and video messaging. We get to hear and see the content of someone explaining a message anytime they're delivering it. And so when communication scholars talk about nonverbal communication being 75% or more, keep in mind that nonverbal communication is every single form of communication above and beyond just the word or words being used in that message. So you're talking about 10 distinct channels of nonverbal communication, voice being one of them, that's a powerful one, but 7 of the 10 are all visual channels. So body language, eye contact, gesturing, posture, all of these are completing that story within that relational dimension of the message. And I think the biggest one is facial expressively. So, your face has 42 muscles in it. There are seven distinct emotions you can make on your face and then another 20 secondary emotions that you can make. And so when you can see someone explain a message, there's no greater form of information that there's no greater way that you could obtain that much information than by watching someone explain a message. 

So when we come back to nonverbal communication and culture, what does this mean? This means, I believe, that the only way you can truly foster a healthy culture in work teams is to have those relational cues visible within your everyday messages. And so employees have to have access to the sender's nonverbals. And if you're going to continue working asynchronously and I absolutely believe we will. I think the only way to do that is video. Like we're doing here.

Little - Dude. I could listen to you talk about this all day. In fact, I was thinking about the people who may be reading the transcript below. They're not getting anywhere near the message. It could by just listening to you speak the truth here. So a couple of things I wanted to just point out that you said, Oh, the only way to truly foster culture and work teams is to have those relational cues in your messages. And if we're going to keep working asynchronously, which looks like we're, we are video is the only way, I mean, most teams, plan to be working remotely even after the pandemic ends, because they found the efficiencies that they can find by at least working partially remotely and having a more flexible schedule. So what would you say is the danger of turning off video and just recording audio, let's say, or text, and you kind of got to that before, but it sounds like there could be danger or damage to a team if you're not using video. And then what percentage of messages do you think require the both content and relational pieces? Certainly, there are some things like “lunch is here” that you don't need to see someone say “lunch is here,” to know what they mean by that or, to get what they're really trying to say with that. There's some that are really just content based messages. So I'm wondering, do you have some percentage or ratio within team communication that might be okay. For just text only versus something with a larger communication pipe.

Hammonds - All right. Hey Josh. Wow. Fantastic questions. Let's see if I can't tackle these, one by one. So this first issue that I want to talk about the idea of a perfect ratio or percentage, right? So when I'm communicating a message, how what's the percentage of messages that should be content only based versus messages that have both content and relational messages to it? Well, let's set the record straight 100% of every message that you send to anybody contains both content dimension and a relational dimension. And so let me, let me give an example. So I text my team, Hey, we are changing the meeting from noon to one. Okay. So the content portion of that message is just that it's the information, it's the directive that I'm trying to communicate, but the relational dimension is everything that surrounds that message. Okay. So the timing that I sent a message, let's say I sent the message five minutes before noon. Well, that tells me a lot about how I see myself, how I see you as the employee and how I see our relationship. Did I use a disclaimer, not, “Hey, I know everyone needed to change the meeting” right? Um, the punctuation that I used, right? Heaven forbid I put a period at the end of it of a text message, right? And so I have a former coworker of mine several years ago, we were texting back and forth. I asked her a question. She says, no, and puts a period at the end of it. And then, and then immediately texts me back and says, I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to put that period as though putting a period as this universal law, that means I'm angry and I'm assertively telling you no right with emphasis. So, so all that to say every message that I'm going to send is going to have both a content and a relational dimension to it.

I don't think there's a perfect golden ratio or perfect percentage, but I do have two rules of thumb when I'm thinking about how much of my relational cues do I want to make visible when I'm communicating the message. And the first rule of thumb is this. I have this the more information that I need to communicate, the more information, the more necessary it is to widen my channel to my receiver. And so what do I mean by that? Well, the brain receives information through channels and, and two of the biggest channels are sight and sound. We also receive information through taste, touch, and smell, but we'll save that for another conversation. And so if I'm sending a very simple message where the content is very small, we're changing the meeting from noon to one, there's not a lot of symbols in that message.

And so I think I'm safe to use a visual channel to send it to you via text. Okay. Even though I might be hiding, uh, potential relational cues in that I don't think there's necessarily a need to open up a video and send a three-minute video letting you know that we've changed the meeting where I see business leaders, miss the Mark though, is when they communicate complex messages with layers of information, right? Business direction changes, organizational structure, pivots, you're downsizing, a division or we're implementing new protocols. They send these messages via email, which is just the visual text, right? And so again, vision is just one channel. And so it's a very small channel and you're sending this complex message through a very small lean channel. And there is a good chance that your message is going to get lost in translation. And what I mean by that is you have a facial expressions, your intentionality, the tone, what your attitude about that protocol is, all of that gets lost and the employee doesn't get to see that. And so I, I do believe in the rule of thumb I have is the bigger, the messages, the more details in that message, the more you're going to need to incorporate your tone, your sentiment about it, the values you have towards that all that needs to be sent in the widest channel possible. And that's going to be through face-to-face or through videos. So you get to see all of the nonverbal behaviors that accompany, that written message, right? So you have, you have both, you have auditory, you have videos, so you can see my face, but then you also have the written document itself that they can follow along.

The second rule of thumb that I have when I consider this is I have to ask myself, how much of the relational dimension do I put into the content of this message is how much do I want to build a healthy relational culture? And I, and I mentioned this before, but building a healthy relational culture. And more specifically what I'm talking about is increasing employee engagement and increasing employee empathy. And so the research is very, very clear that when an employee receives a face-to-face message, they're going to increase their employee satisfaction and their overall employee engagement far more than if they were to get a memo, an email or anything like that. So let me break that down just a little bit, employee engagement, okay. Employee engagement deals with the amount of mental, emotional, and behavioral commitment that an employee has for the work that they do, the organization that they belong to, and you can actually promote employee engagement, and you can stifle that based on the types of messages that you send. 

And so I think you said it perfectly, um, in your response to my last question, is that individuals reading this transcript right now of this, of this message are going to come away with the decent understanding of team communication and how that affects culture. However, those watching the video, I would argue are going to be far more persuaded emotionally and mentally on this subject. They're going to be more likely or motivated to do something about team communication because they've watched my nonverbals both emphasize and support the content that I'm delivering. Okay. And so I know that sounds a bit presumptuous, but the research on emotional contagion would say that those watching this right, that I have moved their communication attitude needle just a little bit above those that are just reading the document. And so I think employee engagement for that reason alone is one of the reasons to engage in more of a video based communication message.

The second area of team culture more specifically is within this area of empathy. Okay. And so empathy, not just engagement, but when I send a video message to my employees, it will greatly increase the degree of empathy that they have towards their leader. And so, as I'm explaining content, okay, we need to realize that my facial expressions are also communicating a message. And what we know about, uh, face, what we know is that your facial muscles are actually very much linked to your emotional system. So the hormones that I produce when I'm feeling a certain emotion are linked very heavily to my facial muscles. And so when I am happy and dopamine and serotonin are coursing through my veins, there's almost an involuntary reaction with my zygomaticus major muscle, which is the smiling muscle. And so you can tell it when someone's extremely happy or pleased about something, they've got this smile across their face, and it's almost involuntary. It's almost like we don't even need you to say anything. We can see all over your face that you're very happy about this. The same goes with stress. The same goes with fear or surprise. We have a, the frontallis major muscle is flexed and the same with anger too. We see, we usually see the eyebrows go in and down when we're angry about something. And so we pick up a lot of data that's necessary when someone is communicating with their face data. That's important. That builds empathy with the fellow, with our, with our leaders, the people that are communicating their messages. And so it's this type of empathy that teams need to have for their leaders to have a better understanding of what's going on in the company and the clarity of the mission of the company, but not only that, but when you develop empathy with your leader, it also works as a buffer against times of stress against times of confusion and against times of conflict. In fact, I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt, because I understand your perspective. I know what you're passionate about. I know what frustrates you. I know what energizes you, because I saw you explain that to me several times. And so for those reasons alone, I think, I think we've got to see people's faces, when we're communicating to help build that relational culture. 

The last question you asked, which is also fascinating, what are we losing if we're just doing audio, right. Things that we're not getting with audio that we might be able to get with video? Well, I will say this, again, the research is clear that employees that listened to messages from their leaders will be far more satisfied and far more engaged than employees that are reading emails and above and beyond that employees that are watching or having face-to-face conversations or video of their leaders explaining things, their boss has explained things are going to be far more engaged and far more satisfied in the workplace than those that are just listening to the audio. So there is a stair-step effect from that. 

I think you asked a very interesting, what are the dangers in shutting off the video, right? And so we do know that, you know, we're in an age of work from home and a lot of people like to shut off the zoom cameras and things like this, so that we can't see our video or they're dangerous. I do. I think there's a false sense of security when we're just listening to someone's message versus watching their face. So it takes something as simple as silence. Right? So if I'm explaining something to you and I'm silent for a few seconds, if you're just listening to that, it could be hundreds of different reasons why you're silent, maybe you're thinking, but maybe you're frustrated when you're thinking. Maybe you're just like, Oh, just basking it. And you're excited. Maybe you're angry. Maybe you're just confused. But I think, I think oftentimes when we have those sort of vocal gaps and we don't know what's happening the face, which is an involuntary reaction to how we're feeling fills in that story completely, as opposed to the voice, there are many things that we can choose to say, choose to be silent about. And we do have more control over the inflection of our voices and the volume of our voices far more than we do of our facial muscles. And so for those reasons alone, I think, you know, video reigns Supreme, when we're sending a message to our coworkers.

Little - Well, if my beard wasn't covering it by zygomatic major muscle, you would see a flexing right now. So, if that answer, doesn't clear up the case for video and for nonverbals and team communication, I don't know what would, and isn't it cool that we're doing this interview in a place outside of time or space that, we can take our turns whenever one, that's why I work. Our clothes are changing. We're not doing some wardrobe change. You can also see that the dates changing the timeline here. We're just moving it forward when we're ready to move forward.  And with that, I guess the next question I would have is around a synchronous video, does breaking up a conversation into turns, an asynchronous video conversation with a gap in between turns, create any lack of context for either content or relational spectrum? Or does it possibly give you superpowers that aren't available?

Hammonds - Oh, wow. Super powers. Maybe, maybe communicating asynchronously does tap into some communication superpowers. I don't know about that, but I do know this. I do know that we've been communicating asynchronously since communication began, right? So from cave writings to carrier pigeons, the idea that somebody who wants to have a conversation with someone or communicate with somebody, sends a message to them, and then they then have the autonomy and the freedom and the time that they need to respond. However they want to, is an age old idea. And we've been doing it a long time. 

The big question that I have been thinking about lately is are there advantages to communicating asynchronously in the business world that synchronous communication doesn't have? And I do. I do think that there are at least two big advantages to asynchronous communication. One of them is message efficiency and then the other one is actually creativity. I want to talk about both of them. 

So first off, when I explain communication to people, I always do this by breaking it up into two parties, we have a sender and we have a receiver. The sender has an idea that lives in their brain, in their head. It's an idea. And they then encode that idea into a message. That process is called encoding. It's an important term. We're going to use it a bunch in this explanation. So when I encode this idea, what I basically do is I translate the idea into a verbal and nonverbal message, words or gestures. And I send it through a channel, either face to face or email or a video. I send it to my receiver. They then take that message, whether it's the paragraph or the facial expression that you're sending to me, and they then decode that into their brain. It now becomes an idea that lives in their head. And I always say this, that successful communication occurs when the idea in the sender's brain is exactly the same as the idea in the receiver's brain. And you might even hear a receiver, say something along the lines of, Oh, okay. I see what you're saying as the evidence that they've heard you, and they completely understand your, your thoughts, the problem, or the hangup I have with this particular illustration is that when you're talking face to face with somebody, there is no sender who then waits for the receiver, who then becomes the sender and the receiver. None of these happen simultaneously that these are communicators. Now they're not senders and receivers, but they're actually both sending and receiving at the same time simultaneously that both of these parties are in coding and decoding every message, every millisecond that they're together in the communication world, we call this the communication feedback loop.

Okay. So if I'm explaining something to you face to face, and you give me a puzzle book, right. That's going to hijack my train of thought for just a second. It's going to break up my encoding process and I'm going to think to myself, Oh, I have to pivot. I have to explain this differently so that you can get what I'm saying. Right. And great. Maybe that's exactly what needs to happen. And, uh, let's say I have high EQ and I, I read it loud and clear, and then I retranslate it to something else and you understand it, but what if I'm in coding and it's not confusion, but you're just looking at me in a bored way, you're, you know, boredom or maybe you're angry. And that hijacks my train of thought or my encoding process, or maybe it works, maybe you're interjecting in questions, or you're saying things to me that are stopping my encoding process. Right? And, and how many times have you heard from a sender? Yes. Hold on just a second. I'm going to get to that. I promise, right. Or yes, let me finish. And then you can ask whatever you want. Right. And so when you're having face-to-face interview actions, it can be very beneficial because you're on the fly and you're figuring things out together. However, sometimes synchronous communication has the potential of breaking up the encoding process and creating sort of a choppy or inefficient message creation. 

Another way. I think that asynchronous communication is more efficient message style of delivery, can be best summarized with what Blaise Pascal said. When he said something along the lines of, if I had more time, I would have written you a shorter letter. Right? And so there are many, many people in this world who are verbal processors, right? What do I mean by that? I mean that they have all of their thoughts there. They're just not organized. And so how many meetings do you go into? And the majority of the people are just verbally processing. They're not even sure exactly what they want to say, but then just saying things out loud, hoping that they'll stick. And then after the hour long meeting, maybe everybody's on the same page, but that could have been done perhaps before the meeting asynchronously. Right?  Even in this interview, Josh, when you, volleyed me a question, I have many, many thoughts for you through my mind. I've spent many years teaching this and researching this. And so I will organize that. I will maybe sketch out a couple of responses that I might say, I even say them out loud. Cause I'm weird like that. Sometimes I talk out loud to myself.

And then when I finally get to a place where I like where it's, and it's concise and I've edited it, then I send you the volley.

And one of the biggest advantages of asynchronous communication deals with, creativity and the idea that an asynchronous message actually can be a more creative message, right? With an intentional pause or gap in between the responses. There's a organizational psychologist by the name of Adam Grant, a phenomenal thought leader. Fantastic author, great speaker. He does extensive research on original thinkers. People that come up with creative solutions or creative ideas. And what he's noticed is that there is this timeline's sweet spot that an original thinker falls into, before they execute on a project or a response or a paper or an idea. See, so there are some individuals out there who respond immediately to a task. So you asked me a question and I respond immediately. And maybe that is because of the stress of, I don't know exactly. Um, you know, I don't want to delay this project any longer or this response any longer. He calls those procrastinators once that just finished right away. But what happens is when you procrastinate, you don't give your yourself the time necessary to engage in peripheral processing. That's where you allow the brain to sort of meander for a little bit. And so what he suggests and what he's noticed in original thinkers is that original thinkers will take a task at hand and they'll begin to sketch things out immediately. And instead of finishing the project or finishing the idea, what we'll do is the walk away intentionally. And in walking away from the project for a little bit, it allows their brain to wander and to engage in peripheral processing. We call this sort of outside the box thinking because I'm connecting ideas that might just be sort of ruminating in my head from prior projects, things I've learned, books I've read in the past. So what does this have to do with asynchronous communication? 

Well, coming back to this interview as an example, when you asked me these volley, these questions via volley, I think immediately about what I might want to say, but then I'll walk away from it and I'll think about other things. And what'll happen is new ideas will pop into my head, fresh examples, I'll have aha moments and put that into my response. And then when I'm ready, boom, I send you the volley.

Little - Yeah, man, that feels right. Creativity and efficiency seem to be the fruits of asynchronous conversation that that's for sure. As a self-proclaimed slow thinker, I can't tell you how many times. I don't know exactly what to say in the moment in the conversation in the meeting, but it's the moment I stand up to leave. And it's just a few seconds that it's like, ah, that's the answer or that's what I should say.  I tend to agree that, our responses are better, more brief, more thorough, thoughtful, when we have just a few seconds to think about them and educational research supports that as well. It's the time to think research that Mary Budd Rowe did back in the seventies. So I'm wondering what suggestions you have for teams that want to communicate, communicate in this way– that want to communicate using asynchronous video conversations like we are now.

Hammonds - All right. Do I have suggestions for people that want to use video messaging as part of their team communication? Yes. I think the first suggestion for them is to simply start using them. Right? I think I have three suggestions really for people that really want to use this as a form of team communication. 

And the first one is to keep it concise. Right? So for the same reasons I mentioned before, this method should be an efficient way of communicating. People don't want to watch a long form documentary of you explaining something. So I would say, think about what you want to say, either sketch it out or think it out and then keep it concise and deliver the goal here is to promote efficiency. 

Number two, I would use video messaging to clarify content. And so I'll oftentimes pair a video message with a written document that I send out. So maybe I send out a memo or an email or some sort of document. And then I give a quick 30 second introduction explaining that document. I'll either go over the purpose. And then maybe even my expectations for that document, I think this works to prevent any kind of confusion that might pop up and an unnecessary stream of emails that oftentimes follows anytime information goes out. 

And then the third reason, and this has been my soap box for video messaging, use them to boost relational morale or relational culture. I called these kinds of video messages, temperature checks. And you know, all the research says that when you see and hear someone communicate with you, even if it's a brief check-in, this will make the message more memorable. And we'll also build relational ties with the individual that is communicating with you. So in other words, when I hear and see you deliver a message, it brings to the forefront of my mind, every conversation we've had before and in a mental way, and even in an emotional way, it's as though I've had a conversation with you when I'm watching that video. And so again, I believe this method provides a very efficient way to communicate with someone without compromising many of the benefits that comes with a face-to-face conversation. So those are my three suggestions.

Little - That's so awesome, man, great suggestions, creating more context to a written document or, you know, adding to the relationship. Those, those are great. And, and I do believe it is all about efficiency because the beauty of volleys is you can watch them on 2X–you can speed up the world around you. So just wanted to say thank you for answering my questions over the last few days. You are a gentleman and a scholar.

Mitchell Dong

Head of Community at Volley

About the Author

Mitchell Dong is a Hawai’i-grown marketer and educator who has spent his career telling brand stories and creating educational content for a range of organizations. He is the head of community at Volley, where he spends his days educating, supporting, and illuminating Volley users.

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