Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 13, Issue 14;   April 3, 2013: Toxic Conflict in Virtual Teams: Dissociative Anonymity

Toxic Conflict in Virtual Teams: Dissociative Anonymity

by

Toxic conflict in teams disrupts relationships and interferes with (or prevents) accomplishment of the team's goals. It's difficult enough to manage toxic conflict in co-located teams, but in virtual teams, dissociative anonymity causes toxic conflict to be both more easily triggered and more difficult to resolve.
Young chickens

Young chickens. Because conditions like these are no doubt different from the conditions under which the chicken evolved, it is perhaps not surprising that salmonella and other microbes infect flocks housed in this way. So it is with the human members of virtual teams. Our biology and our societal patterns were designed for face-to-face interactions. That they don't work very well in the virtual environment is also perhaps not surprising. To recover the constraints that protect us from each other so well in face-to-face interactions, we must make our virtual environments more like our face-to-face environment. Photo courtesy United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service.

In a fascinating paper about online behavior, psychologist John Suler identifies six factors contributing to what he calls the online disinhibition effect. Briefly, the environment of the Internet and other interactive media contributes to relaxation of inhibitions that suppress antisocial behavior. Team leads and those who charter teams can use Suler's work to guide them in taking steps that limit antisocial behavior in virtual teams.

Conflict is essential to team success. We use conflict to transform the first batch of crazy ideas for solving a problem into the second batch of crazy ideas, which are usually a little less crazy than the first. This process continues until we finally identify promising approaches, including a few that actually work. Without such creative conflict sometimes called task conflict progress is impossible at worst, or slow and expensive at best.

Toxic conflict is another matter. In toxic conflict, exchanges focus on personal attacks. One party might attack the other directly, or he or she might persuade others to shun or attack the target. Left to mature, toxic conflict destroys so many relationships that the team cannot function.

Co-located teams are usually formed from the resident population, some of whom might have participated in prior toxic conflicts. These past conflicts are thus sometimes imported into new teams. In virtual teams, by contrast, conflict importation is more rare because the team's members are drawn from a more diverse population.

Conflicts in virtual teams tend to be of the creative type early in the life of a virtual team. But over time, creative conflict evolves into toxic conflict more easily in virtual teams, in part, because of the online disinhibition effect (ODE).

One factor To recover the constraints that
protect us from each other so
well in face-to-face interactions,
we must make our virtual
environments more like
our face-to-face environment
contributing to the ODE is what psychologists call dissociative anonymity. In the virtual environment, in contrast to real life, the connection between our personhood and our social actions is weaker than it is in real life. This weakened connection — dissociation — creates a sense of psychological freedom that enables us to say or do (or not say or not do) things that we wouldn't (or would) otherwise.

Team leads and those who charter virtual teams can address this problem by strengthening the connection between team members' personhoods and their actions (or inactions). For example, having teams meet in person at regular intervals helps establish personal relationships that inhibit antisocial behavior. Cross-posting individuals from one site to another temporarily has a similar effect. Using videoconferencing instead of teleconferencing, or teleconferencing instead of email, also helps.

Anything that fosters creation and maintenance of fully human relationships helps to reduce the effects of dissociative anonymity. It won't completely address the problem of toxic conflict in virtual teams, but it's an essential first step. In coming weeks, we'll explore additional measures that can be just as helpful.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Toxic Conflict in Virtual Teams: Minimizing Authority  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? rbrengdhwrLRkFTrMeXMiner@ChacHvEzoNkUfWolvLySoCanyon.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:

U.S. coinsThe Fine Art of Quibbling
We usually think of quibbling as an innocent swan dive into unnecessary detail, like calculating shares of a lunch check to the nearest cent. In debate about substantive issues, a detour into quibbling can be far more threatening — it can indicate much deeper problems.
A Julius Caesar coinOn Organizational Coups d'Etat
If your boss is truly incompetent, or maybe even evil, organizing a coup d'etat might have crossed your mind. In most cases, it's wise to let it cross on through, all the way. Think of alternative ways out.
A lunar eclipseMaking Meaning
When we see or hear the goings-on around us, we interpret them to make meaning and significance. Some interpretations are thoughtful, but most are almost instantaneous. Since the instantaneous ones are sometimes goofy or dangerous, here's a look at how we make interpretations.
A dense Lodgepole Pine stand in Yellowstone National Park in the United StatesAgenda Despots: I
Many of us abhor meetings. Words like boring, silly, and waste come to mind. But for some meeting Chairs, meetings aren't boring at all, because they fear losing control of the agenda. To maintain control, they use the techniques of the Agenda Despots.
Rachel Hoffman, for whom Florida's Rachel's Law is namedOn Snitching at Work: II
Reporting violations of laws, policies, regulations, or ethics to authorities at work can expose you to the risk of retribution. That's why the reporting decision must consider the need for safety.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Frederick Douglass, ca. 1879, famed abolitionist and ex-slaveComing June 20: Managing Dissent Risk
In group decision making, dissent risk is the risk that dissents about important decisions will be rejected without due consideration. As a result, group decision quality can suffer, and some groups will actually eject dissenters. How can we manage dissent risk? Available here and by RSS on June 20.
Puppies waiting intently for a shot at the treatAnd on June 27: Interrupting Others in Meetings Safely: I
In meetings we sometimes feel the need to interrupt others to offer a view or information, or to suggest adjusting the process. But such interruptions carry risk of offense. How can we interrupt others safely? Available here and by RSS on June 27.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenpgZJgpUYjeGBPvuJner@ChacqOVmqKSXtYLIutrBoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, 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

The Race to the South Pole: The Power of Agile Development
On 14The Race to the Pole: An Application of Agile Development December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. Lessons abound. Among the more important lessons are those that demonstrate the power of the agile approach to project management and product development. 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.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
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.