Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 13, Issue 15;   April 10, 2013: Toxic Conflict in Virtual Teams: Minimizing Authority

Toxic Conflict in Virtual Teams: Minimizing Authority

by

Toxic conflict in virtual teams is especially difficult to address, because we bring to it assumptions about causes and remedies that we've acquired in our experience in co-located teams. In this Part II of our exploration we examine how minimizing authority tends to convert ordinary creative conflict into a toxic form.
A schematic representation of the Milgram Experiment

A schematic repre­sen­tation of the Milgram Experi|-ment, which explored the power of the urge to obey au­thority. In the experiment, devised by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram, and first conducted in the early 1960s, an experimenter (E) instructs a test subject (T) in the training of a learner (L). The experimenter plays the role of an authority figure. The test subject plays the role of a teacher or trainer. The learner is an actor separated from the experimenter and test subject by an opaque screen. In the experiment, T is instructed to apply a series of electric shocks to L whenever L makes a mistake. The shocks escalate in power. In reality, L never receives any shocks at all, but emits a series of auditory responses that escalate from expressions of pain in response to the early, light shocks, all the way to screams of agony and finally death, in response to the most powerful shocks. If T becomes reluctant, E provides a series of verbal prods of escalating urgency. The experiment is intended to determine to what degree it is true that when instructed to do so by an authority figure, humans are almost universally capable of administering pain and harm at any level of severity. Replications of the experiment yield fairly uniform results that have been interpreted to mean that humans do exhibit this capability.

However, given what we now know about the online disinhibition effect, one important question about this result does arise. That question involves the asymmetry of immediacy in the E/T and T/L relationships, which could account for the difference in the ability of E to influence T through in-person commands and the ability of L to influence T through screams of agony heard through the screen. It's possible that a remote E, having to overcome the effect of minimizing authority identified by Suler, might be unable to compete with T's reluctance to continue shocking L. It's also possible that a more immediate connection to L, through video or perhaps a convincing F2F simulation, might cause L's influence over T to dominate over E's. Image (cc) Expiring Frog, courtesy Wikipedia.

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 presence
in 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 Go to top Top  Next issue: Toxic Conflict in Virtual Teams: Virtuality  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.

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenbVVJSecptmISpuWdner@ChacmXhqMDgMWQYAXVvhoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Conflict Management:

A pair of kayakersTotally at Home
Getting home from work is far more than a question of transportation. What can we do to come home totally — to move not only our bodies, but our minds and our spirits from work to home?
Autumn colors on Clopper LakeEnding Conversations
At times, we need to end the current conversation. It's going nowhere, or we have something important to do, or we just don't want to deal with the other person. Here are some suggestions for ending conversations.
A flame arrestor of the type that is required on gasoline cans in the United StatesPreventing the Hurt of Hurtful Dismissiveness
When we use the hurtfully dismissive remarks of others to make ourselves feel bad, there are techniques for recovering relatively quickly. But we can also learn to respond to these remarks altogether differently. When we do that, recovery is unnecessary.
The late Cameron Todd Willingham, wrongfully executed in Texas in 2004 for the murder of his daughtersAnecdotes and Refutations
In debate and argumentation, anecdotes are useful. They illustrate. They make things concrete. But they aren't proof of anything. Using anecdotes as proofs leads to much trouble and wasted time.
Boeing 747-409LCF Dreamlifter at Edinburgh AirportUnresponsive Suppliers: I
If we depend on suppliers for some tasks in a project, or for necessary materials, their performance can affect our ability to meet deadlines. What can we do when a supplier's performance is problematic, and the supplier doesn't respond to our increasingly urgent pleas for attention?

See also Conflict Management, Emotions at Work and Virtual and Global Teams for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The United States curling team at the Torino Olympics in 2006Coming November 22: Motivation and the Reification Error
We commit the reification error when we assume, incorrectly, that we can treat abstract constructs as if they were real objects. It's a common error when we try to motivate people. Available here and by RSS on November 22.
A human marionetteAnd on November 29: Manipulators Beware
When manipulators try to manipulate others, they're attempting to unscrupulously influence their targets to decide or act in some way the manipulators prefer. But some targets manage to outwit their manipulators. Available here and by RSS on November 29.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenzhtyAfBPdCyvgQJkner@ChacicZUKPFZHHOyfmaUoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
Most Ten Project Management Fallaciesof what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we know "just ain't so." Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully. Even more important, avoiding these traps can demonstrate the value and power of the project management profession in general, and your personal capabilities in particular. In this program we describe ten of these beliefs. There are almost certainly many more, but these ten are a good start. We'll explore the situations where these fallacies are most likely to expose projects to risk, and suggest techniques for avoiding them. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople 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.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.