virtual team performance

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?




3 Evidence-based Ways to Improve Virtual Team Leadership

Leading a team is hard.

Leading a team that is geographically scattered is way harder.

Everyone who has lead a distributed teams knows this.  Traditional, top-down, single-leader hierarchical leadership model diminishes in its effectiveness as distance increases.

Specifically, critical leadership functions, such as motivation, inspiration, and managing team dynamics become significantly more difficult as teams become more virtual.  Distance creates barriers to a leader’s ability to influence and supervise.

Today’s leader needs to figure out quickly how to overcome these barriers in order to lead effective virtual teams.

Thankfully, a recent large-scale study has figured this out for you.

Researchers from Michigan State University measured “team virtuality” along three scales:

    • Geographical distance
    • Level of media-based communications;
    • Cultural differences.

As each of these scales (or distances) grow, the effectiveness of traditional top-down leadership diminishes.

They theorized that structural supports would increase leadership influence and that shifting the leadership model to one of shared leadership would also improve team productivity.

Here’s what they found.


Structural Supports

Structural supports are the routines and policies that substitute for direct leadership influence to assist in regulating team dynamics and behaviors.  Researchers did not anticipate the increased impact these supports would have. The study revealed that “structural supports were more strongly related with team performance under increasing levels of team virtuality.”

In other words, the more virtual your team is — the more it is separated by geography, electronics, and culture — the more valuable these structural supports are in increasing leadership effectiveness as it relates to team performance.

There are two specific structural supports that mitigate diminishing leadership effectiveness across distance.  They are:

1.  Structural Supports — Reward System

A common structural support in any team is a reward system.  In virtual teams, the reward system takes on additional importance as virtual team members often feel anonymous and isolated from their virtual teammates.  These feelings of anonymity and isolation are frequently demotivating for virtual team members.

One clear way to counteract these feelings is to establish a transparent and fair reward system that provides open acknowledgment for people’s time and effort, as well as their final contribution to the the virtual team project.  Since most people work on more than one project at a time, this type of reward system has been proven to motivate people to put more into their virtual team project.

It is important to call out that the reward system must be both fair and transparent to all virtual team members in order for it to have a positive, motivating effect on virtual team performance.

2.  Structural Supports — Communications & Information Management Systems

Communications and information management systems impact the perception of distance between people.  Most virtual teams are comprised of knowledge-based workers.  The flow of communication and information is critical to each person’s ability to perform their job.  When knowledge is shared and teams are comprised of the necessary experts and they each have easy access to each other, performance increases.

Communications and Information Management systems facilitate:

  • Connectivity between virtual team members
  • Organization of information
  • Accessibility of information

Together, these supports diminish the naturally occurring reduced feelings of trust in virtual teams, as well as feelings of being anonymous, and feelings of low social interaction.

The research showed that as levels of virtuality increased, the importance of these structural supports also increased.  In other words — the more “virtual” your team — the more it is separated by distance, electronics, and culture, the more valuable these structural supports are in increasing leadership effectiveness and team performance.

3. Shared Leadership

Shared leadership is the extent to which team members behave in ways to prompt the team processes that underlie team performance.  In other words, when the burden of leadership is shared among team members, the team performs better as a whole.

Researchers anticipated that adjusting leadership style from top-down to shared would improve team performance.  The surprising finding was that the improvement occurred regardless of the degree of virtuality.

Shared leadership increased the stability of positive team performance regardless of the degree of distance involved.

This surprising lack of scalability indicates that this simple shift in leadership style will have a powerful, positive impact on teams with low levels of distance between members.


  1. Structural supports are the strongest mitigating factor in diminishing leadership effectiveness across virtual teams.  As virtuality increases, so does the importance and impact of structural supports.
  2. Structural supports that make a difference are:
    1. Reward systems that are both fair and transparent.
    2. Communications and Information Management systems that are reliable and transparent.
  3. Shared leadership contributes positively to team performance, regardless of degree of team virtuality.  It provides a consistent degree of performance improvement in all kinds of virtual teams.
Leading Virtual Teams: Hierarchial Leadership, Structural Supports, and Shared Team Leadersip.  Julia E. Hoch and Steve W.J. Kozlowski, Michigan State University, Journal of Applied Psychology, 2014, Vol. 99, No 3, 390-403.