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Volume 13, Issue 16;   April 17, 2013: Toxic Conflict in Virtual Teams: Virtuality

Toxic Conflict in Virtual Teams: Virtuality

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Last updated: August 8, 2018

In virtual teams, toxic conflict sometimes seems to erupt spontaneously. People who function effectively in co-located teams can find themselves repeatedly embroiled in conflicts that seem to lack specific causes. What triggers toxic conflict in virtual teams?
A field of corn severely stunted by drought

A field of corn severely stunted by drought in Zambia. It should be the height of the farmer's shoulders. When we look at this field, knowing something of the conditions that created the growth deficit, we understand. We aren't tempted to blame the corn, or the soil, or the farmer. We can easily see and accept the truth of the drought. But when we observe a dysfunctional virtual team, struggling under conditions that we ourselves created, it is much more difficult to accept that the conditions themselves led to the dysfunction. The difficulty arises, in part, because we must then accept some responsibility for the dysfunction. Photo by F. Sands, USAID, courtesy U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

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.
Frustration
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  Go to top Top  Next issue: First Aid for Wounded Conversations  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!

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