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:
- Political Framing: Strategies
- In organizational politics, one class of toxic tactics is framing — accusing a group or individual
by offering interpretations of their actions to knowingly and falsely make them seem responsible for
reprehensible or negligent acts. Here are some strategies framers use.
- What You See Isn't Always What You Get
- We all engage in interpreting the behavior of others, usually without thinking much about it. Whenever
you notice yourself having a strong reaction to someone's behavior, consider the possibility that your
interpretation has outrun what you actually know.
- Compulsive Talkers at Work: Addiction
- Incessant, unending talking about things that the listener doesn't care about, already knows about,
or can do nothing about is an irritating behavior that harms both talker and listener. What can we do
- The Knowledge One-Upmanship Game
- The Knowledge One-Upmanship Game is a pattern of group behavior in the form of a contest to determine
which player knows the most arcane fact. It can seem like innocent fun, but it can disrupt a team's
ability to collaborate.
- Linear Thinking Bias
- When assessing the validity of problem solutions, we regard them as more valid if their discovery stories
are logical, than we would if they're other than logical. This can lead to erroneous assessments, because
the discovery story is not the solution.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming 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.
- And on July 4: Interrupting Others in Meetings Safely: II
- When we feel the need to interrupt someone who's speaking in a meeting, to offer a view or information, we would do well to consider (and mitigate) the risk of giving offense. Here are some techniques for interrupting the speaker in situations not addressed by the meeting's formal process. Available here and by RSS on July 4.
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- On 14 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
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- Ohio National Insurance, 1 Financial Way, Blue Ash, OH: July 17, Monthly Meeting, Cincinnati chapter of the International Institute of Business Analysis. Register now.
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