What Happens When We Meet Online by Dr Maria Katsarou-Makin

By Guest Contributor Dr Maria Katsarou-Makin, Author of Group Dyna-Mix

“You are on mute” has probably been one of the most commonly used phrases during the pandemic in a work setting. It never ceases to amaze me how human beings get used to new habits so fast to the extent that we view them as “normal”. As societies decided to slowly go back to the offices, experiences and preferences varied. We had those who were dreading a return to the office, those who couldn’t wait to go back and others who were somewhere in between those two extremes.

When people get together in a physical setting, they tend to fall into specific behavioural patterns. And the virtual space is no different. Research indicates that what happens is often determined by a person’s status in the group. The people who are higher in the organizational hierarchy tend to take up to 40–50% of the time, while the remainder of the time is taken up by two or (at most) three other members. Those who are towards the bottom of the hierarchy may not contribute at all. This is further exacerbated by the extent to which some members are more vocal than others and/or faster to respond. The result is that people tend to cluster into groups that converse with each other (Forsyth, 2019).

My experience when working with groups online is similar to the mentioned research. If there are managers and direct reports in the same virtual space, the conversation tends to be dominated by the managers. This changes completely once you separate groups into breakout rooms where individuals are in smaller groups of the same hierarchical level. The amount of participation and energy is very different. And it changes again once they are back in plenary.

Of course, one could argue that this may be due to a lack of psychological safety and I would agree that for certain organisations and teams this may indeed be the case.

Online communication can be either synchronous (e.g. videoconferencing) or asynchronous (e.g. social media platforms). Research indicates that online communication makes employees feel more equal to their superiors (Hollingshead, 2006). Specifically, many of the cues that are implicitly used to determine status are minimized through a screen. These can include anything from what is on someone’s desk to their dress or height. As a result, discussion forums, emails, social media platforms and the like tend to encourage the participation of members who would otherwise not engage as much.

The best summary of what happens online is provided by John Suler (2004), a professor of psychology at Rider University, who expanded on the existing term ‘online disinhibition effect’ in his article of that name. According to it, interactions that take place in the virtual world tend to loosen, and people tend to exhibit fewer social restrictions and inhibitions than would normally be present in face-to-face interactions in a physical space. This is contrary to what the general public believes.

Suler described two main categories of behaviour that fall under the online disinhibition effect:

  • Benign disinhibition involves behaviour in which people reveal more about themselves online than they would in reality, or make more of an effort to be kind and helpful
  • Toxic disinhibition involves rude language, threats, and visiting sites related to pornography, crime or violence (topics a person might not engage with in real life)

Suler further breaks down six elements that may affect online disinhibition: dissociative anonymity, invisibility, asynchronism, solipsistic introjection, dissociative imagination, and minimization of status and authority.

Dissociative anonymity

The screen seems to provide a shield behind which people almost hide and feel anonymous, and hence protected. As a consequence, people don’t feel they have to own their behaviour, and therefore they feel less vulnerable about self-disclosure. They may even engage in antisocial behaviour.


This element is similar to the previous one but relates more to the fact that interaction over the internet takes place through writing, which adds to our invisibility. Therefore, our inhibitions are lowered even further and we don’t have to take into account aspects such as body language, contrary to what we would normally do in a physical interaction. In addition, invisibility allows us to present ourselves in any way we choose, which adds to the possibilities of communication (e.g. it is common for people to present themselves as being of a different gender).


Communication doesn’t happen at the same time or in real-time. Anyone can post or write something, and then they might wait a while until they choose to see the responses, which adds to the disinhibition and the distance. Consequently, people may feel as if they can temporarily avoid negative reactions, or they may even choose to ignore them completely. Interactions that don’t take place in real-time also allow for time for reflection before we post, which we don’t usually have in face-to-face interactions, where the response or reaction is immediate. For some people, this means less pressure and hence greater freedom.

Solipsistic introjection

When we can’t see the other person in front of us, we tend to make up a persona for them. This is partly based on their messages and how they portray themselves, but it is also influenced by our own preconceptions and what we want from the other person. Moreover, in the absence of a voice, we will tend to ‘hear’ the other person’s voice in our own voice. This can all make the other person feel very familiar with us, which can make us feel less inhibited.

Dissociative imagination

Some people report that cyberspace feels like a game to them. Because it does not feel like reality, the rules of everyday life may not seem to apply. Therefore, the mere act of logging on can feel like a means of escapism and a way of inhabiting a different persona.

Minimization of status and authority

In interactions in physical spaces, we use and react to authority cues (consciously or unconsciously). These include dress, body language and aspects of our working space. In an online environment, these may not be as visible and therefore authority can be reduced or minimized. At the same time, we may feel less intimidated because of this effect. This might be a challenge for managers and leaders who already find it difficult to maintain a healthy distance from their direct reports and become overly friendly.

I guess what I am indirectly trying to say is that technology is not “all bad”. It may never replace human connection, of course, however, there are advantages and if used complementary, it can actually enhance human interaction. Personally, I have incorporated many of those tools in our physical settings and I have seen that they have added greater freedom in the design and delivery of our programmes.


Dr Maria Katsarou-Makin is the founder of the Leadership Psychology Institute and has more than 20 years of experience in organizational development and executive coaching. She combines business and consulting experience and has done extensive work and research in team dynamics.



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