Dragons was asked to do an article to seed a leadership conversation about one aspect of virtual leadership learned over the past 24 years. This is that article: Long before there was a pandemic and the world working in isolation, yet trying to carry on with business like its normal, there were virtual communities that centered around online gaming. While an employee of a company can quit and get a new job, there is cost and risk involved in doing so. But in a virtual community, there are literally millions of other options, many of which will accept anyone seeking a new home. So leadership, in a virtual community is a survival requirement. There are a great many lessons that modern business leaders could glean from the mistakes and successes of long live virtual communities. There are communities, like The Syndicate, who have lasted nearly 25 years and whose members almost never quit. Those communities made mistakes but learned from them and developed tactics and approaches to virtual leadership that are a recipe for success today.
One of the earliest lessons that had to get learned is one of the hardest to see and manage. In the online community space, the interface to the membership is often in the context of a game. Displayed on the screen is a world that is ever changing. But what can't be seen is that each member of that community exists in two worlds at once. They are also in the 'real world'. There are dogs barking. There are people coming in and interrupting them. There is a trip to the kitchen to get coffee.
The relevance of those two worlds is rooted within the theory of the False Consensus Bias. That theory is that we see our choices and judgments as common and appropriate. Said a different way, clearly everyone see's what you see... understands what you understand... and concludes the same things you conclude. That is an inherent fault that all humans share and it gets exacerbated in the virtual leadership world. Your touch point with other humans is an inhuman interface. That could be a video game but it could just as easily be an email or a collaborative forum or powerpoints on a conference call. We naturally think of course everyone is paying the exact right amount of attention and seeing and reading and understanding everything we are saying, as leaders and therefore must be held accountable to that level of expectation.
That is not reality. It may be a reality sitting in the same meeting room where you can look around and see someone tuning you out or on their phone and correct that behavior. In the virtual world you have no idea if their house just caught on fire (true story there too...) and that is why they are not doing their job and are letting the team down. You have no idea if their child just got hurt and screamed out for help and they had to rush and handle it. But we have the inherent bias that we assume if you are at your keyboard and committed to the topic at hand, so are there. And because of that, without even realizing it, we can lose or lessen a critical component of leadership... empathy.
It is easy to be empathetic when an employee is in your office, holding back tears, to tell you their loved one passed away and they need some understanding. It is much harder when you do not see them and all you see is a lack of results or a lack of response. All you hear is silence. So, one of the earliest and most important lessons that online community leaders had to learn is... assume the best in your people. Assume their intent is good. Assume their efforts are genuine. Assume their desire is to succeed and to add value to the community. Assume the best... until proven otherwise. You can always take action for poor performance and bad behavior. However, you cannot undo the damage done by a lack of empathy and assuming the worst in your folks, even if that is unintended.