Managing conflict in virtual teams

| By TMA World


Smooth collaboration on virtual teams depends heavily on recognizing the challenges of virtual distance, including anticipating and preparing for potential conflict triggers.

What is virtual distance?
According to Prof. Karen Sobel-Lojeski, virtual distance is a sense of psychological and emotional detachment generated when most encounters and experiences are mediated by screens on smart devices. 
Three types of virtual distance contribute to conflicts on distributed teams: 
Physical Distance: working in different locations, e.g. different parts of a building or continents.
Operational Distance:  working with different methods and processes, workloads, and technologies.
Affinity Distance: working with others with whom we have no relationship.

Below, I have taken the expanded version of Sobel-Lojeski’s excellent framework and provided a tip for managing a conflict trigger.

Physical Distance

Trigger: Proximity Bias: Virtual team leaders find it more convenient often to rely on team members in close proximity – interactions are more frequent, relationships are easier to form resulting in higher levels of trust. 
Tip: Track team interactions: Monitor the time spent and contacts made with all members of the team.  Given the nature of the team’s business, some members may need to be contacted more than others, but be aware of marginalizing those in other geographies.   

Trigger: Temporal Bias: Virtual team members often work across multiple time zones.  The time zone shared by the leader and majority of team members sometimes becomes the ‘default’ zone for planning and scheduling.  Those in other zones might experience detrimental work-life balance causing resentment and productivity loss. 
Tip: Develop equitable communication plan: Rely more on asynchronous technologies for communications across time zones.  When real-time meetings are necessary, make sure the scheduling ‘pain’ (late nights/early mornings) is distributed fairly.

Trigger: Loyalties: Cross-border virtual team members often experience conflicting organizational priorities and loyalties (e.g. functional, global/local); these are powerful conflict triggers if not recognized and managed.
Tip: Demonstrate reciprocity: Make sure team members know you are working for them as much as they are working for you.  Discuss with individuals how you can help them achieve their professional goals even though they report directly elsewhere.

Operational Distance

Team Size
Trigger: Large size: Large virtual teams (e.g. thirty members) can function well as long as there is good connectivity, excellent information sharing, and shared key processes.  Large teams can, however, lose focus, have difficulties building trust and commitment, and be prone to groupthink.  Some members of large teams may look to ‘hide’ and not contribute their share, creating hostility and divisiveness.
Tip: Create sub-teams: If creation of a large team is unavoidable identify logical ways in which sub-teams can be formed, e.g. interdependent tasks, specialties, experiences, interests. 

Trigger: Ambiguity: Ambiguity is a common cause of conflict on virtual teams, e.g. ambiguity over roles and responsibilities.  Virtual teams sometimes work with ‘lean’ technologies having fewer communication cues, i.e. signals that convey how the receiver is meant to interpret a message – facial expressions, gestures, voice tone, and intonation. 
Tip: Sharpen your senses: Pay continuous attention for signs of misunderstanding, or confusion in verbal and written communications, e.g. hesitations, irrelevant questions, or unexpected word usage.  Don’t be afraid of over-communicating – paraphrasing, summarizing, and periodically reinforcing key messages and terminology.

Trigger: Partial attention: Multitasking is not a sin unless it is has a negative impact on team meetings.  Some members may need less involvement in a meeting, or only need to pay attention at specific points.  
Tip: Design better meetings: Establish norms for multitasking during meetings, but also design more efficient meetings, e.g. limiting their number, reducing number of attendees, having shorter duration, and creating more structured agenda/process.  

Technical Skill and Support
Trigger: Inconsistency: Significant variations in digital collaboration skill levels among members or in technical support can cause frustrations that intensify into conflict.
Tip: Establish parity: Provide training to team members as needed.  If local technical support is inconsistent or not available, provide online support, e.g. a producer for virtual meetings for troubleshooting problems.   

Affinity Distance

Cultural Distance
Trigger: Exclusion: Team members working across cultures can experience virtual ‘culture shock’.  Variations in cultural assumptions and styles result in different ways of thinking, and doing.  Differences can lead to hasty evaluations about competence and trustworthiness resulting in marginalization of some members.  Negative perceptions damage relationships and destroy the value that diversity can add, e.g. more innovative ideas and local knowledge. 
Tip:  Encourage cross-cultural dialogue: Train the team in cultural intelligence skills and knowledge.  The training should be more than an event; it needs to establish ongoing dialogue and learning about cultural differences.

Trigger: Over-collaboration: Conflict can arise when a team leader sees the continuous need for collaboration resulting in diminishing returns; team members may not only turn on the leader, but also on each other.   
Tip: Pre-assess collaboration value: Any collaboration should be qualified with a realistic pre-assessment of likely costs and benefits.  There are opportunity costs (what else people could be doing with their time and resources), as well as delays when politics becomes time-consuming.

Relationship Distance
Trigger: Team composition: Some team members might have worked together before so there is a low relationship distance.  This can have a positive or negative effect.  Familiarity can facilitate smoother collaboration or prejudice members against one another.   
Tip: Focus on skills/attributes: When a team leader can choose members, she should concentrate on recruiting those who can work autonomously/ interdependently and tolerate ambiguity.  Familiarity should be secondary unless time is very short.  When a project is complex and prolonged, relationship distance can be managed with periodic face-to-face meetings that develop interpersonal ties.

Social Distance
Trigger: ‘Us vs. them’:  Hierarchical and status differences on a virtual team can undermine team identity which increases communication and coordination problems.  They also inhibit the development of a team ‘transactive memory’ i.e. knowing where different knowledge is held and how to access it efficiently.
Tip: Reinforce shared context: Establish and reinforce the truism that members depend on each other for success.  Setting up shared norms early in areas like mutual support, open communication, information sharing, decision making, and leadership can help avoid hierarchical conflict.  The team always shares one context – its goal.       

For more on how to leverage virtual communication technologies for increased business performance, see our Digital Fluency curriculum here

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