5 Ways to Manage Conflict in Virtual Teams


Conflict within teams is inevitable and, when managed correctly, it can make teams stronger. But handling conflict in virtual teams poses its own set of challenges. “Conflict in virtual teams is more likely to be negative for performance and is more likely to escalate,” says Lindred Greer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business.  ‘‘When people lack information — when they are uncertain about why someone disagreed with them — they are much more likely to take it personally.”

People are also more likely to be uninhibited in the virtual space. Psychologists call this the online disinhibition effect. Since you can’t see who you’re talking to, you’re more likely to blurt out what you feel and keep talking. You aren’t affected by the other’s emotional reaction or even position of authority, since the distance helps you feel invisible and detached.

“This means they are going to be more emotional and their response is going to be more aggressive and more likely to escalate the conflict than what would happen with face-to-face teams,” says Greer.

That’s why managers of virtual teams need to proactively prevent, address and resolve conflicts before they derail a project or drive your best people away.

Use an online discussion board

Ann Majchrzak, a professor at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, studied how multinationals like IBM, Unilever, Shell Chemicals and Kraft managed conflict in their virtual teams. She found the most successful teams used an online discussion board in a shared virtual workspace. This allows teams to solve problems before they escalate, prevents false consensus, and creates trust. “When issues are discussed openly and resolved based on their technical merits (and not on biases, bad information, or politics), that transparency will engender a sense of fair play, leading to an atmosphere of trust within the team,” says this article in Harvard Business Review.

Ask the right questions

Remote teams can’t read each other’s body language, so they miss out on important cues that signal possible confusion or conflict. That’s why Ed Muzio, CEO of Group Harmonics and author of Make Work Great says it’s important to draw out these concerns by asking the right questions, such as:

  • “I sense that you’re not in full agreement, am I right?”

  • “How does this approach mesh with your other responsibilities?”

  • “Am I wrong in thinking this might create some problems for you?”

  • “What other information would you need to make a decision?”

  • “What’s the best approach, in your opinion?”

Break the cycle of passive aggression

Some teams exhibit passive-aggressive behavior: they don’t confront each other, but they express negativity through sarcasm, gossip, resistance or stalling, and backbiting. Managers need to create channels where people can safely and professionally resolve their issues. Liane Davey, author of You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done says the first step is to hold a session that establishes your desired group dynamic.

Be explicit about the need for conflict, and work with the team to set your conflict ground rules. You can say, “I’m concerned that we aren’t using our meetings effectively to air all of our opinions” or “I want everyone to add value before decisions are made, not after.” Don’t be afraid to be direct about counterproductive behavior. For example, say “Often, two or three people come to my office after each meeting to discuss something that I expected to be raised in the meeting.” From there, always end a meeting by asking, “What haven’t we talked about?” or “How might someone criticize this idea?” This allows people to safely offer a conflicting perspective.

Discourage people from secretly raising their concerns outside of meetings. “I’m concerned that I didn’t hear this point of view in the meeting. What are you hoping to accomplish by raising it now?” Your team needs to see that you value transparency.

Set very clear procedures and guidelines

IBM’s guide for managers of its remote teams says it’s critical to express and even formalize procedures. That seems obvious, but unfortunately, many managers focus on project plans: roles, deliverables, deadlines, budgets. But they rarely talk about team plans.

90% of your problems will be people problems, and only 10% will concern utilization of technology - so it is smart to address your people issues first. Start by working with your team to create a team plan and make sure that all members of the team are familiar with the end result.

The team plan should include:

  • Communication plan. Outline what needs to be communicated, how it will be communicated, who needs the information, when do they need it, and what happens if communication breaks down.

  • Decision-making process. Set the approval channels, escalation plans, and the process for making a decision as a group.

  • Conflict resolution strategy. You can set rules, but it’s also important to get the team together and brainstorm on ways you can avoid and manage the inevitable standoffs. Get your team’s buy-in and commitment.

This activity doesn’t just set a structure that prevents and manages conflict. It also helps team members share their ideas and buy into whatever rules you agree on.

Facilitate regular feedback

Regular feedback within teams is another important process for identifying and addressing conflict. “Feedback is particularly important for virtual teams,” says Rudi Ramin, Grow CEO and Co-Founder. “To overcome the physical distance, team members must make a special effort to communicate their feelings and to gauge their impact on others. Teams and their organizations can improve communication by promoting a culture of feedback within the team and by providing the tools and processes that facilitate regular feedback.”

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