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 environmentcontributing 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 Top Next Issue
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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More articles on Conflict Management:
- Dispersed Teams and Latent Communications
- When geography divides a team, conflicts can erupt along the borders. "Us" and "them"
becomes a way of seeing the world, and feelings about people at other sites can become hostile. Why
does this happen and what can we do about it?
- Toxic Conflict in Virtual Teams: Minimizing Authority
- 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.
- Pariah Professions: I
- In some organizations entire professions are held in low regard. Their members become pariahs to some
people in the rest of the organization. When these conditions prevail, organizational performance suffers.
- Overtalking: II
- Overtalking is a tactic for dominating a conversation by talking to stop others from talking. When it
happens, what can we do about it?
- Impasses in Group Decision-Making: IV
- Some impasses that develop in group decision-making relate to the substance of the discussion. Some
are not substantive, but still present serious obstacles. What can we do about nonsubstantive impasses?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 27: Brainstorming and Speedstorming: II
- Recent research into the effectiveness of brainstorming has raised some questions. Motivated to examine alternatives, I ran into speedstorming. Here's Part II of an exploration of the properties of speedstorming. Available here and by RSS on February 27.
- And on March 6: A Pain Scale for Meetings
- Most meetings could be shorter, less frequent, and more productive than they are. Part of the problem is that we don't realize how much we do to get in our own way. If we track the incidents of dysfunctional activity, we can use the data to spot trends and take corrective action. Available here and by RSS on March 6.
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- 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.