Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 13, Issue 16;   April 17, 2013: Toxic Conflict in Virtual Teams: Virtuality

Toxic Conflict in Virtual Teams: Virtuality

by

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!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenqMeQpgOELaKRnDWrner@ChaczcwfiRStOJchwoaToCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Conflict Management:

Rabin and Arafat shake handsCommunication Templates: I
Some communication patterns are so widely used that nearly everyone in a given cultural group knows them. These templates demand certain prescribed responses, and societal norms enforce them. In themselves, they're harmless, but there are risks.
A section of stone wall at Pueblo BonitoStonewalling: II
Stonewalling is a tactic of obstruction. Some less sophisticated tactics rely on misrepresentation to gum up the works. Those that employ bureaucratic methods are more devious. What can you do about stonewalling?
A P-14 lady beetle devours a pea aphidWorkplace Bullying and Workplace Conflict: II
Of the tools we use to address toxic conflict, many are ineffective for ending bullying. Here's a review of some of the tools that don't work well and why.
Rep. Elijah Cummings and Rep. Darryl IssaGrace Under Fire: I
If you're ever in a tight spot in a meeting, one in which you must defend your actions or past decisions, the soundness of your arguments can matter less than your demeanor. What can you do when someone intends to make you "lose it?"
Sen. Robert Packwood, Republican of OregonPatterns of Conflict Escalation: I
Toxic workplace conflicts often begin as simple disagreements. Many then evolve into intensely toxic conflict following recognizable patterns.

See also Conflict Management, Emotions at Work and Virtual and Global Teams for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

An informal meeting geometryComing November 21: Make Suggestions Privately
Suggesting a better way of doing things can sometimes backfire surprisingly and intensely. Making suggestions privately reduces that risk, but introduces a different risk. Available here and by RSS on November 21.
A beefsteak, with some amount of fatAnd on November 28: Wacky Words of Wisdom: VI
Adages, aphorisms, and "words of wisdom" seem valid often enough that we accept them as universal and permanent. Most aren't. Here's Part VI of a collection of widely held beliefs that can be misleading at work. Available here and by RSS on November 28.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenrpNLzaLXdFwngsumner@ChachSggXsUOaHIapJlboCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople 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.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.