Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 21, Issue 40;   October 6, 2021: Disagreements in Virtual Meetings

Disagreements in Virtual Meetings


Disagreements about substance can sometimes become unpleasant. And it seems that the likelihood of this happening is greater in virtual meetings. Six tactics can help keep things calm enough for groups to work better together.
Bull moose sparring in Grand Teton National Park

Bull moose antler-sparring in Grand Teton National Park to determine breeding rights. This is a common occurrence when the bull moose are in rut. The configurations of antlers vary from bull to bull, but most configurations are such that the bulls can easily disengage once locked. From time to time, though, two bulls can actually lock antlers in a way in which they cannot disengage, and that event can lead to the deaths of both. In this way, conflict — which does serve a purpose from the perspective of species fitness — can lead to losses that harm the species.

So it is with destructive conflict in organizations. Constructive conflict does serve a purpose, but when it changes from a constructive form to a destructive form, it harms the organization. Organizational culture and policies that elevate the likelihood of constructive conflict turning destructive are counter-effective.

Photo courtesy U.S. National Park Service.

Disagreement is a difference between facts, opinions, preferences, or ideas. For example, I might advocate splitting our team of 24 people into three teams — one of six, and two of nine. If you then advocate splitting our team into three teams of eight, we have a disagreement. When we encounter disagreements at work, we usually resolve them without weaponry or bloodshed. We can do this by employing an array of cultural tools and customs, many of which are so natural that they're outside our awareness.

Most of those tools and customs arose or were designed for face-to-face interactions. But in today's largely virtual work environments these cultural tools and customs don't work as well as they do in face-to-face contexts. Some of us — not all of us — have learned and adopted new ways that are effective in many situations that arise in virtual meetings.

But there are no guarantees. We can still get into trouble, even though everyone involved might be trying their best to make their points in a civil manner. There are some less-than-obvious ways to help groups reach resolutions even though strains have started to appear. Here are a few of the less-frequently mentioned techniques for virtual meetings.

Leave space for someone else to make that point
Leaving space for others to comment or raise questions can sometimes bring about the careful thought that leads to durable decisions. This technique is especially likely to produce welcome results when the issue at hand hasn't been as carefully studied as might be necessary.
Wait for others to express disagreement
When one person There are some less-than-obvious ways
to help groups reach resolutions even
though strains have started to appear
raises all the issues relative to the proposal under consideration, there is a risk that such dissent might appear to be motivated by a political agenda or personal animus. Allowing others to raise questions or concerns can sometimes mitigate that risk.
Don't assume that the disagreement has a firm foundation
When parties engage in a debate about an issue, they tend to assume that they themselves understand the issue well. And they attribute the difference in viewpoints to distortions in others' perceptions, due to their ignorance, false beliefs, irrationality, or biases. This phenomenon is known as naïve realism. Three assumptions more likely to be valid are that (a) everyone grasps some of the truth, (b) everyone is misled or confused in some respects, and (c) nobody has a complete and clear-eyed view the entire situation.
Address misinformation and disinformation proactively
Misinformation is false information that arrives by chance and error; disinformation is false information intentionally and knowingly distributed. Although naïve realism is an actual phenomenon, people do sometimes make erroneous judgments based on false information, by whatever path it arrives. If false information is in the air, address it directly and proactively. Arguing with its victims after the damage is done is far less effective.
Allow for political pressures
Some people, in some situations, adopt the views they have because of coercion applied by someone with superior political power. To conceal the facts of their circumstances, they devise complex "arguments" to justify their views. Engaging in debate with people so entangled is unlikely to yield the desired results. Political problems must be solved politically.

Most important, understand the online disinhibition effect. [Suler 2004] Briefly, the environment of the Internet and other interactive media contributes to relaxation of inhibitions that suppress antisocial behavior. When things get out of hand, the environment might have played a starring role. To regard any of the people involved as "out of control" might not be correct. Ironically, telling them so might itself be an example of the online disinhibition effect. Go to top Top  Next issue: The Risks of Humor at Work  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!


[Suler 2004]
John Suler. "The online disinhibition effect," Cyberpsychology and Behavior 7:3 (2004), 321-326. Available here. Retrieved 22 April 2021. Back

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See also Conflict Management and Effective Meetings for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

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When we can't begin a meeting because some people haven't arrived, we sometimes cancel the meeting and hold a different one, with the people who are in attendance. It might seem like a good way to avoid wasting time, but there are risks. Available here and by RSS on March 29.
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Errors of reasoning are pervasive in everyday thought in most organizations. One of the more common errors is called the Fallacy of Division, in which we assume that attributes of a class apply to all members of that class. It leads to ridiculous results. Available here and by RSS on April 5.

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