Many believe that misbehavior alone causes toxic conflict. To explain it, we tend to search for "bad apples" or "personality clashes." While such cases certainly exist, this model cannot explain the elevated frequency of toxic conflict in virtual teams. There aren't enough bad apples or clashing personalities to explain all the dysfunctional virtual teams, and even if there were, why do we notice the effects of misbehavior so much more often in virtual teams? Do we consistently overlook them in co-located teams? Unlikely.
Another possible cause of toxic conflict in virtual teams is virtuality itself. Here are four mechanisms that illustrate how virtuality can create toxic conflict.
- Expressing disagreement
- In face-to-face (F2F) communication we signal disagreement in many ways, including facial expressions, body posture, and shaking of the head. When speakers notice these cues, they can temper their statements, thereby avoiding polarization. In the virtual environment (VE), many of these signals are unavailable or less effective, which increases the likelihood of speakers making polarizing statements. This makes entrenchment, and hence toxic conflict, more likely.
- Expressing agreement
- Expressing agreement with head nods, smiles, and other gestures is routine in the F2F environment. These cues are almost unconscious and very effective. But in the VE, expressing agreement requires care, because these cues are unavailable or ineffective. And we often confuse explicitly verbal acknowledgments with other forms of agreement, such as contingent agreements. Consequently, people who receive indications of agreement might overlook them, and continue to debate unnecessarily. At best, this wastes time and causes frustration among listeners. At worst, agreements can teeter or collapse.
- Although frustrating F2F meetings are common, the causes of frustration are generally related to meeting content. In the VE, frustration arises for all these reasons and more. We can experience frustration arising from unfamiliar or unreliable technologies; elevated likelihood of confusion and miscommunication; increased difficulty in resolving confusion; personal schedules disrupted by meetings; and differences in beliefs about appropriate personal interactions. There are many more. Increased frustration leads to irritability, and toxic conflict is then just one step away.
- Diversity of background
- Compared to virtual teams,In virtual teams, increased frustration
leads to irritability, and toxic
conflict is then just one step away F2F team members are more likely to have shared experiences, perspectives, vocabulary, and concept knowledge relevant to the task at hand, which reduces the likelihood of confusion and disagreement. Because virtual team members are drawn from more diverse populations, virtual teams must deal with diversity in operational customs, such as rules for running meetings, the definition of promptness, the definition of interruptions, and even the vocabulary used in email messages. Not all teams deal with these differences well. Moreover, this effect can confuse research studies unless they control for diversity of team members' backgrounds.
Reducing the incidence of toxic conflict in virtual teams must begin with accepting the challenges these teams face. Allocating responsibility for toxic conflict solely to team members is often a mistake. First in this series Top Next Issue
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More articles on Conflict Management:
- Obstacles to Compromise
- Compromise is the art of devising an approach acceptable to all parties. A talent for compromise is
rare. What makes finding compromises so difficult?
- Changing the Subject: I
- Whether in small group discussions, large meetings, or chats between friends, changing the subject of
the conversation can be constructive, mischievous, frustrating, creative, tension relieving, necessary,
devious, or outright malicious. What techniques do we use to change the subject, and how can we cope
- Dismissive Gestures: III
- Sometimes we use dismissive gestures to express disdain, to assert superior status, to exact revenge
or as tools of destructive conflict. And sometimes we use them by accident. They hurt personally, and
they harm the effectiveness of the organization. Here's Part III of a little catalog of dismissive gestures.
- Handling Heat: I
- Heated exchanges in meetings are expensive to both the organizational mission and to the careers of
the meeting's participants. Preventing them — or dealing with them when they happen — is
everyone's job. But what can you do when they persist?
- Creating Toxic Conflict: II
- Some supervisors seem to behave as if part of their job description is creating toxic conflict among
their subordinates. It isn't really, of course, but here's a collection of methods bad managers use
that make trouble.
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- And on December 20: Conceptual Mondegreens
- When we disagree about abstractions, such as a problem solution, or a competitor's strategy, the cause can often be misunderstanding the abstraction. That misunderstanding can be a conceptual mondegreen. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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- Person-to-Person Communications: Models and Applications
- When we talk, listen, send or read emails,
read or write memos, or when we leave or listen to voice mail messages, we're communicating person-to-person.
And whenever we communicate person-to-person, we risk being misunderstood, offending others, feeling
hurt, and being confused. There are so many ways for things to go wrong that we could never learn how
to fix all the problems. A more effective approach avoids problems altogether, or at least minimizes
their occurrence. In this very interactive program we'll explain — and show you how to use —
a model of inter-personal communications that can help you stay out of the ditch. We'll place particular
emphasis on a very tricky situation — expressing your personal power. In those moments of intense
involvement, when we're most likely to slip, you'll have a new tool to use to keep things constructive.
Read more about this program. Here's a date for this
- Embassy Suites by Hilton Jacksonville Baymeadows, 9300 Baymeadows
Road, Jacksonville, Florida, 32256, USA: January 15, 2018,
Monthly Meeting, Northeast Florida Chapter of the Project Management Institute. Register now.
- Embassy Suites by Hilton Jacksonville Baymeadows, 9300 Baymeadows Road, Jacksonville, Florida, 32256, USA: January 15, 2018, Monthly Meeting, Northeast Florida Chapter of the Project Management Institute. Register now.
- Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
- Most of 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 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.