As we saw last time, toxic conflict in virtual teams can arise from the nature of the virtual environment, because in the virtual environment, we sometimes engage in behavior that we self-inhibit when we interact face-to-face (F2F). One factor contributing to this phenomenon is that the virtual environment supports only a weakened form of the connection between our personhood and our actions. In his study of online behavior, psychologist John Suler calls this mechanism dissociative anonymity an element of what he calls the online disinhibition effect.
Suler identifies another mechanism that he calls minimizing authority. Briefly, in the virtual environment, differences in personal status are not as evident as they are F2F, which can encourage behavior in the virtual environment that would be rare F2F. A familiar example is the stream of sometimes-disrespectful email messages that CEOs receive from people all through their organizations. Minimizing authority contributes to the online disinhibition effect by suppressing the inhibitions people have about addressing the CEO, and in what manner they address him or her.
Within virtual teams, minimizing authority has analogous consequences. Here are three examples.
- Ineffective facilitation
- An effective facilitator can impose order F2F with presence alone. Sidebars and interruptions are rare. In the virtual environment, especially one that lacks video, facilitators have much more difficulty maintaining order on the basis of presence, because projecting one's presence is difficult. Muting everyone except the recognized contributor does help, but the meeting pays a price for this in terms of spontaneity and the inability to interrupt legitimately, as one might do for a process question.
- Ineffective project leadership
- Although project managers generally lack formal authority over the members of teams they lead, they do have some authority within the project context. They can use that authority, their personal relationships, and their personal presence to craft a microculture that enables team success. But in the virtual environment, the phenomenon of minimizing authority makes this more difficult. Progress suffers.
- Minimizing subordination
- Minimizing authority In the virtual environment, especially
one that lacks video, facilitators
have difficulty maintaining order
on the basis of presencein the virtual environment also affects those with authority, whose perceptions of their own authority are based, in part, on their experiences of others' perceptions of them. In the virtual environment, since the perceptions of others are affected by minimizing authority, those with authority sometimes see themselves as less authoritative. Moreover, when others behave in a manner that in real life would be viewed as challenging to authority, those with authority can experience a feeling of being disrespected. This can be upsetting, leading to misjudgments, miscommunications, and misbehavior on the part of those with authority.
Loss of effective facilitation, loss of effective leadership, and feeling disrespected make the virtual environment vulnerable to toxic conflict. We'll continue this exploration next time. First in this series | Next in this series Top Next Issue
For more on Suler's work, visit his Web site. For a lighter look at email in particular, see Daniel Goleman's article, "Flame First, Think Later: New Clues to E-Mail Misbehavior," from The New York Times, February 20, 2007.
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More articles on Conflict Management:
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- Truly paying attention to Trust at work is rare, in part, because we don't fully appreciate what distrust
really costs. Here's Part II of a little catalog of how we cope with distrust, and how we pay for it.
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- When we have to terminate someone who works at a remote site, sometimes there's a temptation to avoid
travel — to use email, phone, fax, or something else. They're all bad ideas. Terminating people
in person is not only a gesture of respect. It's good business.
- Pariah Professions: II
- In some organizations entire professions are regarded as pariahs — outsiders. They're expected
to perform functions that the organization does need, but their relationships with others in the organization
are strained at best. When pariahdom is tolerated, organizational performance suffers.
- Overtalking: I
- Overtalking is the practice of using one's own talking to prevent others from talking. It can lead to
hurt feelings and toxic conflict. Why does it happen and what can we do about it?
- Historical Debates at Work
- One obstacle to high performance in teams is the historical debate — arguing about who said what
and when, or who agreed to what and when. Here are suggestions for ending and preventing historical debates.
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- When assessing the validity of problem solutions, we regard them as more valid if their discovery stories are logical, than we would if they're less than logical. This can lead to erroneous assessments, because the discovery story is not the solution. Available here and by RSS on August 2.
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- Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
- Many people experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes
frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all
speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises
is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage,
and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located
teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and
supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance.
Read more about this program. Here's a date for this
- Baci Grill, 134 Berlin
Road, Berlin, CT 06416: September 19,
Monthly Meeting, Southern New England Chapter of the Project Management Institute. Register now.
- Baci Grill, 134 Berlin Road, Berlin, CT 06416: September 19, Monthly Meeting, Southern New England Chapter of the Project Management Institute. Register now.
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- On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald
Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen
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As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business
analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read
more about this program. Here's a date for this program:
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Rocky Hill, CT 06067: September 20,
Full-day Workshop, Southern New England Chapter of the Project Management Institute. Register now.
- CTCPA, 716 Brook Street, Rocky Hill, CT 06067: September 20, Full-day Workshop, Southern New England Chapter of the Project Management Institute. Register now.
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- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.