By: Sam Heiter and Mary Lou Jurgens
Working together on a project may take a village, but dealing with conflict definitely takes the whole village. So what do you do when that village is scattered across the globe?
Recognizing conflict in the virtual arena is harder than for an in-person team, but all the more necessary to diagnose. Given the distances between people, misunderstandings proliferate more easily, virtual team members have an increased chance of miscommunicating via methods such as email, and there’s a decreased chance of building trust. Further, by the time a conflict amongst virtual team members manifests itself to the team leader, the root of the problem has a long trail, which has long lain dormant. Such conflict silences valuable opinions on the project at hand, decreases job fulfillment, and hinders productivity.
Within an in-person team, you can immediately sense when someone is being ostracized, even slightly, by the body language and actions of others. There is, however, carryover of these skills to a virtual team setting. For example, in both in-person and virtual meetings, perhaps a certain member isn’t asked to participate with the same frequency as in the past; or when they do speak, other members’ eyes roll or their remarks are met with steely silence. If you are observant and aware that a change in participation habits is a red flag, you can observe that change; but what is the equivalent “virtual eye roll” in a distributed team? The virtual eye roll is highly subtle, and begins with taking note of the way your team typically interacts with one another.
A virtual team leader must be ever vigilant of nascent signs of barriers going up between team members. Signs of virtual ostracism include individuals’ names suddenly being left off of relevant group emails; or suddenly a lot of extra people being added to the “cc” section of direct email to said person. The action of adding names to the “cc” list often indicates that the sender is putting up a barrier between themselves and the recipient of the email, and is seeking out witnesses to communications that cannot be avoided. The sender may be feeling pressured or intimidated in some way, or simply so frustrated they want to bring others into help. Changes in emailing patterns is a red flag that virtual leaders need to be aware of, moreso than leaders of traditional teams who have the added advantage of direct observation.
As barriers develop, people tend to create new or “secret” communication paths to circumvent direct interaction with whomever this barrier is with. This could take the form of an email thread or discussion, about which the rest of the team simply isn’t informed; or when questions are asked about someone’s work indirectly instead of asking them directly. This is a red flag that often takes the village to recognize as the leader may not be privy to these paths. It is important, however, especially as decisions are made without including all the expected and relevant participants.
In virtual meetings, some signs of barriers are exactly the same as in face-to-face meetings — people aren’t called on as frequently as the situation warrants, or as frequently as they used to be. When the person in question finally does offer an opinion, they may be interrupted, ignored, or talked over. On the other side of the barrier, signs exist in the form of the ostrasized person talking more or less in a meeting — they may feel compelled to get everything out in a rush, or to withdraw from participating. Their tone of voice often changes, and those changes depend on the personality behind them. Some people become less confidant and softer, more questioning in tone; other become more aggressive or sarcastic. While changes in tone are relatively easy to pick up on, the tricky part in a virtual meeting is to identify when the changes in participation are deliberate and when they are due to technology. A savvy virtual leader is aware of when technology difficulties are at fault, and when the pattern of behavior is different enough to raise a red flag, and to investigate further.
Technology increases the difficulty of recognizing conflict between virtual teammates. Beyond virtual meetings, technology issues may be used to cover up sub-par work behaviors created by someone experiencing conflict; thus, a disaffected member many not follow through on commitments or deadlines. While we all experience technology glitches and setbacks, if these problems are cited as an excuse disproportionately often, it may be an indication of disengagement due to a conflict-driven barrier going up.
Finally, communication is the lifeblood of any virtual team. Any communication quiet-down—or “going dark”—can be a death knell to team cohesiveness and therefore productivity. The astute virtual leader must know how to interpret people’s silence. Is silence due to deep concentration — someone immersing themselves in their task — or is it something else? Whatever the root cause, silence must be heard and understood by both the leader and the team as a whole.
In a high functioning virtual team, a team leader’s role can’t be that of a micro-manager. To combat conflict proactively, a team leader must foster a working environment that encourages open dialogue on points of disagreement; and therefore, quashes unnecessary conflict before it can take hold. Leaders must not only learn to recognize these signs themselves, but talk openly about them with the entire team. Through careful observation, the virtual leader and the virtual team will become aware of the warning signs of conflict and be better able to investigate early to determine whether there is an underlying issue that needs to be addressed.
Question for readers: What are signs of barriers in your virtual team? What did you do to overcome?