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 lateperceptions. 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. Top Next Issue
Is 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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