Rise of The Keyboard Warriors: Business communication in virtual teams



I tell a story. You express an opinion. The bigger the better, because emotion drives content.

Likes and comments pile in, hot-take shares sprinkled with hashtags to spread the word – and the indignation. Two tribes of keyboard warriors draw their lines. Newcomers pick a side and everyone argues to the bitter end – or until the next story comes along.


Too often, online discourse – especially short-form, on social media – brings out the worst in us. It’s immediate, impersonal and rarely nuanced – a perfect storm.


We seem to be losing the art of reflecting and responding to new information. The prevailing trend seems to be simply to dig our heels in and ‘win’, or at least to ensure that we have the last word. And the exercise often leaves us wanting. We become irritable or belligerent, then distracted, anxious about the reply, about our own riposte.


These tendencies aren’t often as extreme in professional exchanges. When we converse with colleagues online, there are (hopefully) clearer guidelines on acceptable behaviour outlined by the organisation. The topics in question may not be as emotive. We are not anonymous. More often than not, we’ve met those we’re speaking with face to face.


But nevertheless, there are elements of online behaviour which can compromise the way we communicate with others from our keyboards. With more of us working remotely than ever before, how do we prevent the negative aspects of these online behaviours from seeping into our working lives?


What happens when fingers touch those keys?

Many psychologists have asked the question. In short, why doesn’t the kind of conflict we see online happen so often in person? Day to day, most of us aren’t exposed to much moral outrage. And if we are, there are consequences to confrontation. We might be attacked. At the very least, we might be uncomfortable to occupy the same space.


But online, it’s a different story. The risk is lower. And when we confront someone to defend our values, it activates the reward centre in our brains, so we’re more likely to do it again.

So, what happens when two worlds collide? On occasion, I’ve seen friends pick up on one another’s posts and discover that they’re on different sides of an argument. More often than not, that exchange will end in the admission that the internet isn’t the place for nuanced debate. In other words, they’d rather keep to the psychological contract of their friendship and discuss it in person, or merely agree to differ and move on.


It can be the same way for colleagues, especially those with whom we’ve worked for some time. If we know how others tend to behave, we’re more likely to understand where they’re coming from, and to give them the benefit of the doubt.


Understanding the person at the desk

The frantic pace of online discourse across different time zones doesn’t lend itself to reflection. We might feel pressure to form an opinion rapidly, so we’re not left out of the dialogue, and still more pressure to stick to it.


Our identity becomes bound up, somehow, in our side of the argument, in defending it and ourselves. It has become anathema online (or at least not scintillating micro-blogging) to admit you’re not sure, that you haven’t formulated an opinion yet, or that you can see both sides of an argument.


In online conversation, we’ve stopped asking, “Why do they feel or think that way?” “Where are they coming from?” “How do I feel/think about this issue?” “What am I unsure about?”

We become lazy at exercising these muscles, because working and playing online shapes our behaviour in different ways than does interacting in the real world. Algorithms offer up others who already share our interests or belong to our groups. We become cocooned in an echo chamber of those who think the same way we do. We are fed a carefully curated view of the world, and this becomes our reality.


What does this have to do with Team Roles?

Understanding the behaviours and intent behind online interactions goes some way to making sense of the words on the screen. When you understand the Belbin Team Role framework, it’s not difficult to begin identifying those behaviours in others’ words, whether you’re interacting online or in person.

Someone is impassioned by an argument. Someone else corrects their grammar. To others, it’s petty needling and it detracts from the conversation. But perhaps that person has strong Completer Finisher tendencies. For them, the error detracts from the argument and erodes a little respect, because they want to interact with thought and care, and for others to do the same.


Meanwhile, the strong Specialist is feeling peeved that everyone seems to have jumped on their specialism for a day. People are screwing up definitions and simplifying the statistics. High Shapers are rolling their eyes at the Teamworker’s emotional outpouring.

Many people I know with strong Monitor Evaluator tendencies eschew social media altogether and perhaps aren’t the greatest fans of the work chat thread either. Although the word ‘debate’ is often bandied around, there isn’t much balance to be found online, and social media has no end of evidence that we seem to have lost the art of reflecting between exposure and reaction, which is key to how Monitor Evaluators operate.


What can we do?


Regardless of Team Role preferences, each of us needs to get back in the habit of cultivating moments of reflection, to foster more effective business communication. Why is that person speaking the way they are? Not only the content, but the body language, the tone, the focus? How is it different to your own approach and what effect does that difference have on you? Discomfort? Irritation? Sympathy? Does it make you feel guilty or defensive?

Of course, it won’t always be attributable to Team Roles, but acknowledging differences of approach in any group of people can help us understand that we might be looking at the same problem from two different angles.


It’s easy to misunderstand and take umbrage when internal communication goes wrong. And then it’s easier to pick at the edges rather than do the work of finding common ground, articulating differences and trying to reach an understanding. With social media, you can walk away. In virtual meetings with other team members, there’s often an obligation to find a solution.


Team Role theory isn’t a panacea, but it can be the foundation of an effective communication strategy, because it promotes self-reflection and encourages you to learn about others. To understand Team Roles is to understand diversity – that other points of view are not to be feared or held in contempt, but to be appreciated and valued for what they add to the discussion.


Have you noticed any changes in the way your team communicates online? How does your virtual team resolve conflict? Please do drop me a comment below. Or head over to the Belbin blog, for more thoughts on all manner of subjects, including virtual teams, leadership and how and why working relationships fail.


By Victoria Bird - Director of Research and Development Belbin UK