global teams

Global Village: Signs of Conflict in Your Global Team

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 deadlinesWhile 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?




Bridging Conflict in Global Teams

tug of war

Virtual Team Leadership is Different

By: Sam Heiter, Mary Lou Jurgens, Stefanie Heiter

Is a virtual conflict still a conflict? If it is only there virtually it is easier to ignore. Ignoring virtual conflict, however, makes it all the more insidious and more necessary for leaders to recognize and address.  Conflict in any team decreases morale but on a virtual team, it also leads to barriers between teammates and these barriers lead to lowered productivity. Our globalized world has led to many advances but the increased presence of virtual work can also lead to greater potential conflict among team members.  Today’s leader must understand the fundamental differences between leading a traditional team and leading a virtual team and adjust their methods accordingly.

Managing conflict is especially difficult for virtual teams because of the differences in geography, culture, and context. Differences in culture and the problems brought on by physical distance between team members compounds the problems teams already face.  For example, communication is inherently less frequent and less effective across large distances, and therefore, team relationships form weaker ties. As technology often dehumanizes relationships, leaders of virtual teams must actively work to re-humanize them, and help team members to overcome the barriers distance puts up.communication

When team members are scattered across many different time zones it makes synchronous discussions significantly more difficult, as everyone has their own “normal” office hours that frequently don’t match up with others’.  More importantly, however, distance removes a sense of shared context so team members are less aware of issues their coworkers are having.  While it is far easier to ignore this distance and the subsequent barriers, successful virtual leaders know that communication efforts need to be redoubled and team members need to be encouraged to spend the time to get to know their virtual teammates.

What is context? Context is the extent to which the team environment and structure supports the “how” of working together. It includes having the right people on the team; clarifying roles; trust; shared sense of vision; and purposeful inclusion of every team member. Context is the glue that holds every kind of team together, and without which, a virtual team cannot sustain alignment or productivity. As in-person team often shares and understands its fundamental context on a subconscious level. The process of osmosis enables people to adjust their own work and vision according to the work and vision of the people around them. A shared context is not possible on a virtual team without deliberate and purposeful attention from the leader.

Context and conflict are partners in crime in the virtual team setting.

An astute virtual leader must approach virtual leadership differently. Virtual team members need to be able to articulate their specific roles and need to stay formally aligned. Leaders must pay attention because conflict is not necessarily brought to attention in a virtual environment. Once a conflict does manifest itself the underlying causes will have been festering long before the outbreak.

When conflict does rather inevitably arise and come to the attention of the leader there is a three-fold approach towards conflict resolution, which has worked for our leadership clients in the past: First, perform triage: assess the problems and determine which ones take priority and actions to resolve it. Second, analyze the current conflict and establish a “lessons learned.” What went wrong in the first place? What have we learned from this? Third, after the underlying problems are understood, steps can be taken to address what can be done better in the future to mitigate conflict. For example, if your team was out of alignment because each person had a different vision of what the end-goal was, establish frequent check-in times to be sure that everyone shares the same vision as time goes on.

Virtual teams, when properly led, can feel just as close as the next office away, but leaders must be attentive to potential points of conflict. Good virtual leaders need to adjust their methods to managing the sometimes sensitive needs of a virtual team.

Next week we’ll take a closer look at recognizing conflict in virtual teams.

Research Opportunity for Virtual leaders and virtual workers:  Please take a minute to help us out by taking our super-short survey (pinky promise — it’s short!)!


Finally, question for Readers: What are your experiences with conflict within the virtual team setting?

Level the Playing Field for Global Teams


Level the Playing Field for Global Teams

Our recent case study with a US-led global medical research team revealed just how easily distance turns relatively small misunderstandings into significant misalignment for globally distributed teams.

As we continued to analyze the results from our assessment, we learned that the quality of the communications between the US-based leadership and the non-US team members was causing a significant rift within the team.  This was uncovered when we compared specific data sets gathered from each of the non-US teams with the US-based team.

Leadership was surprised:

“But we have weekly status meetings!” “We send emails all the time!”

However, it became clear that the non-US based team members were disconnected from the daily communication of the larger team. The fact that the US team met face-to-face while the non-US teams utilized video updates gave an impression of inequality relating to the roles and importance of individual team members.  Among the global teams, there was an overwhelming perception of favoritism by leadership toward the US-based research team members.  This perception of favoritism tainted leadership’s ability to effectively communicate with the global teams.

Together with organizational leadership, we created an action plan to reduce the perception of favoritism and foster the desired sense of equality among all research teams, regardless of location.

Team Leadership began conducting all team meetings through video conferencing, even when members shared an office location.  Treating all members the same levelled the playing field of communications and sent a subtle, but powerful, message that leadership held all research groups in equal standing.

Additionally, the Team Leader made it a point to visit every global team that quarter to solidify the importance of everyone’s contribution to their team effort.  After this initial visit, a schedule of regular in-person meetings was developed to maintain the feelings of equality.

Six months later, the team had measurably improved its productivity and was on-track with its research goals.  Each team re-took our assessment and this subsequent analysis confirmed a vastly improved global team.