Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 7, Issue 42;   October 17, 2007: Virtual Conflict

Virtual Conflict

by

Conflict, both constructive and destructive, is part of teamwork. As virtual teams become more common, we're seeing more virtual conflict — conflict that crosses site boundaries. Dealing with destructive conflict is difficult enough face-to-face, but in virtual teams, it's especially tricky.
Vincent's Bedroom in Arles, by Vincent Van Gogh

Vincent's Bedroom in Arles, by Vincent Van Gogh, painted in September, 1889, less than a year before his death. The painting exhibits the distortions characteristic of many of his works. These particular distortions are similar in some ways to the distortions we see in images produced by the cameras used in many computer-based video communications systems. Although the video distortions have a variety of psychological effects, depending on the precise nature of the distortion, the effects are more significant when the viewer has never met the person viewed. The viewer forms impressions that don't actually fit reality. And many of us are uncomfortable about our images as represented in these systems. This complexity creates what might be called "video risk," which appears as an elevated probability that people might not understand each other. Enhancing image fidelity by employing up-to-date and high-quality equipment might well be worth the cost. Image courtesy VanGoghGallery.com.

For teams, creative conflict is essential to high performance. It helps them find solutions that no team member could have developed alone. But not all conflict is creative. Some is destructive, or toxic.

In creative conflict, people might contend about each other's ideas, but they do so respectfully, often with humor and fun. In toxic conflict, they contend with each other about each other, disrespectfully. Even when they're discussing each other's ideas, they do so, in part, to attack each other. And some attacks are purely personal.

Any team can fall into toxic conflict, but virtual teams are most at risk, and they have more difficulty healing. Here are some tips and insights for virtual team leaders who want to avoid or deal with toxic conflict.

Our communication channels put us at risk
Virtual teams use communication channels such as email, video, telephone, and instant messaging. All are psychologically "half-duplex" channels — they let us focus on sending or receiving, but not both at once. Face-to-face communication, by contrast, is psychologically full duplex. We can and do make adjustments as we're speaking, according to our reading of the receiver's response. Since we can't do this in half-duplex communication, we send longer messages, often offending, ignoring, or hurting our partners.
Keeping messages short lets you find out how you're doing in time to make adjustments.
We underestimate the toxicity of virtual conflict
Because we see only those elements that can squeeze through our communication channels, toxic virtual conflict is less visible than is toxic local conflict. If toxicity is evident even from a distance, it's probably worse than an equally obtrusive toxic local conflict.
Recalibrate your If you wait before intervening
to be as certain in a virtual
conflict as you would be in
a local conflict, you're
probably acting too late
perceptions. What can safely be ignored in a local conflict might not be ignorable in a virtual conflict.
Act prematurely
If you wait before intervening to be as certain in a virtual conflict as you would be in a local conflict, you're probably acting too late.
If you suspect a toxic conflict, don't wait passively for more information. Do whatever is necessary, including traveling to the remote site, to resolve the ambiguity between toxic conflict and creative conflict.
Meet frequently face-to-face
When people know each other, they can make corrections for the deficiencies of their communication channels, because they have a reservoir of trust, and because they can take account of the effects of the medium.
To trust each other, people must know each other. Face-to-face meetings are the only effective way to help them establish and maintain relationships. When we decide not to pay for face-to-face meetings, we're deciding to pay instead for the effects of toxic conflict.

If a toxic conflict is underway in your team, estimate its true cost — including the cost of being late to market — and compare it to the cost of bringing everyone together. After you recover from the shock, schedule that face-to-face meeting. Go to top Top  Next issue: Worst Practices  Next Issue

303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsIs your organization a participant in one or more global teams? Are you the owner/sponsor of a global team? Are you managing a global team? Is everything going well, or at least as well as any project goes? Probably not. Many of the troubles people encounter are traceable to the obstacles global teams face when building working professional relationships from afar. Read 303 Tips for Virtual and Global Teams to learn how to make your global and distributed teams sing. Order Now!

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See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness, Conflict Management and Virtual and Global Teams for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A vizsla in a pose called the play bowComing April 26: Why Dogs Make the Best Teammates
Dogs make great teammates. It's in their constitutions. We can learn a lot from dogs about being good teammates. Available here and by RSS on April 26.
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