Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 13, Issue 14;   April 3, 2013:

Toxic Conflict in Virtual Teams: Dissociative Anonymity

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Last updated: January 17, 2021

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

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!

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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