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.
- 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 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!
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More articles on Conflict Management:
- Conflict Haiku
- When tempers flare, or tension fills the air, many of us contribute to the stew, often without realizing
that we do. Here are some haiku that describe some of the many stances we choose that can lead groups
into tangles, or let those tangles persist once they form.
- Practice Positive Politics
- Politics is a dirty word at work, as elsewhere. We think of it as purely destructive, often distorting
decisions and leading the organization in wrong directions. And sometimes, it does. Politics can be
constructive, though, and you can help to make it so.
- Stalking the Elephant in the Room: II
- When everyone is thinking something that no one dares discuss, we say that there is "an elephant
in the room." Free-ranging elephants are expensive and dangerous to both the organization and its
people. Here's Part II of a catalog of indicators that elephants are about.
- Rope-A-Dope in Organizational Politics
- Mohammed Ali's strategy of "rope-a-dope" has wide application. Here's an example of applying
it to workplace politics at the organizational scale.
- Face-Off Negotiations
- In difficult face-to-face negotiations — or any face-to-face negotiations — seating arrangements
do matter. Here's an exploration of one common seating pattern.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 25: Exploiting Functional Fixedness: II
- A cognitive bias called functional fixedness causes difficulty in recognizing new uses for familiar things. It also makes for difficulty in recognizing devious uses of everyday behaviors. Here's Part II of a catalog of deviousness based on functional fixedness. Available here and by RSS on July 25.
- And on August 1: Strategies of Verbal Abusers
- Verbal abuse at work has special properties, because it takes place in an environment in which verbal abuse is supposedly proscribed. Yet verbal abuse does happen at work. Here are three strategies abusers rely on to avoid disciplinary action. Available here and by RSS on August 1.
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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.