Meeting virtually is a necessity in today’s global economy, and doing so has plenty of advantages. Organizations can gather experts together regardless of geographic location, companies can give employees greater flexibility in where they work, and virtual technology can reduce the negative effects of hierarchy, allowing more equal participation among colleagues. But when things go wrong on virtual teams, it can get ugly fast.
Disputes among team members are never easy to navigate. But they become even more complex — and intense — among colleagues who have never meet face-to-face, says Lindred Greer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business. “Conflict in virtual teams is more likely to be negative for performance and is more likely to escalate,” she says.
Communicating with a coworker through video conference calls such as Skype or, even worse, solely through email or non video calls can be a petri dish for conflict and a type of conflict that escalates quickly. That’s because colleagues are more likely to take disagreements personally when challenges to their ideas arrive in their inbox from colleagues who are miles or even oceans apart instead of in the next cubicle. “They can’t see the context or the nuance or even the facial expressions of the person who is engaging in this task conflict,” says Greer, who researches conflict and power. This causes them to create negative attributes about the other person.
‘‘When people lack information — when they are uncertain about why someone disagreed with them — they are much more likely to take it personally,” she says. “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.”
And because virtual communication is often impersonal, it encourages a back and forth that escalates more quickly than during in-person encounters. “So people are more likely to be less inhibited, they are likely to be aggressive, and they are more likely to say opinions that could spark very negative reactions in other people.”
Soon, task conflict — which can help a team reach its goals — transforms into one that threatens a team’s performance because it digresses into issues extraneous to the task at hand.
Greer’s research on conflict contagion shows that these particular types of conflicts, which are personal and emotionally charged, are more likely to spread quickly than other types of conflict, and they adversely impact team performance. Oftentimes, virtual teams do not have the history with each other that helps build trust among collaborators. “In face to face teams you can look at somebody and know where they are coming from. You have more knowledge of their background. It’s just easier to keep it in context.”
So how do managers keep a lid on destructive conflicts among virtual teams? “One main solution is to make sure you have a face to face kickoff when you start working together in virtual teams,” says Greer. ‘‘It is really critical to give team members a few days together to get to know one another so they have a context and an understanding of the relationship and the person so that in case they do have a conflict over email or over the phone, they know how to make sense of it and make the right attribution rather than to take it personally.”
Finding ways to fill the personal gap that is often missing among virtual teams is crucial because negative conflict left unchecked can be lethal for an organization. Greer says if conflict isn’t managed and dealt with, it transforms into a negative type of conflict. “It can tear a team to pieces,” she says. In fact, there has been research that shows conflict can have a variety of negative consequences. People can get burned out or depressed. Or, they leave the company, and the teams can eventually dissolve.
Here are some other tips for managing conflict in virtual teams:
Match team members with appropriate tasks.
Assign tasks that demand interdependence among team members to complete. This requires team members to rely on each other to succeed.
Set clear goals.
Formalizing the team’s vision, roles, norms, work processes, and strategies can help keep a team on track.
Create teamwide rewards.
Awarding teamwork is crucial among virtual teams to encourage them to work together and discourage an individual from going off the rails and/or take an inordinate amount of credit for the achievements.
Teams often overcome problems of virtuality over time.
Managers are advised to keep their antennas up for disagreements that have the potential to go viral. That may be more challenging among virtual teams, but Greer says “the dangers of not resolving conflicts are huge.”
Lindred Greer is an Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Watch her video “Managing Conflict in Teams” on YouTube.