Teams do sometimes fracture — they break into subteams that contend with each other for control or dominance, instead of working together to achieve a shared objective. And virtual teams are particularly vulnerable to fracture. To treat these ideas with the care they deserve, allow me to begin with some meanings for three words: team, virtual, and fracture.
TeamIn organizations, a team is a grouping of individuals tasked with performing functions that are intended to achieve a set of related objectives. Members of the team might provide different kinds of expertise and skills, or they might all perform similar functions. Usually there is a designated leader, and a manager who acts as the team owner.
A virtual team is a team whose members are separated geographically by distances great enough to make coming together inconvenient or too costly. Some virtual teams meet face-to-face occasionally; some have never met, and some never will. They communicate by web conference, videoconference, telephone, text, email, and so on.
Teams — virtual or co-located — are composed to provide all capabilities their missions require. Some make planned adjustments to their rosters to meet needs that occur from time to time. But sometimes they require capabilities that no one anticipated. When that happens the team adjusts its roster to include the missing roles, and moves on.
Other difficulties are less amenable to solution, and that's when the risk of fracture is highest.
Most teams are subject to the effects of organizational rivalries, destructive conflict, conflicts of interest, bullying, and the rest of the catalog of organizational dysfunction. But unlike other teams, virtual teams are subject to dysfunctions that arise, in part, from the structure of the team itself, and how that structure interacts with the structure and policies of the hosting organization.
An example of the unique vulnerabilities of virtual teams might be helpful. All agree that many parts of the organization must work together to complete the team's mission. If that weren't true, there would be no need for a virtual team. But what might remain unsettled is the relative importance of the various parts of the organization represented in the team. People physically located at one site might feel that they're more important than people located at another site. And because that ranking can change over the course of the engagement, there can be no final settlement of the ranking disputes. Ranking disputes can arise repeatedly and indefinitely.
For all teams, success is possible only if the team and all its elements succeed. When a team fractures into subteams, some subteams come to believe that they can succeed independently of the others. This is likely a false belief, because the team was assembled on the basis of an assumption of success based on interdependence.
Categories of fracture
Still, teams do fracture. [Whiting 2019] And when they do, they fracture in ways that can be analogous to the ways bones fracture. Here's a brief catalog of types of team fractures, guided by the categorization of bone fractures.
- Greenstick fracture
- In bones, this fracture is incomplete, and the bone is bent.
- In greenstick fractures of virtual teams, some members at some sites feel that success is more likely if they work independently. To some degree, they are alienated from the team, and although they aren't alone in their perceptions, the team as a whole doesn't share their belief.
- This sort of team fracture is more likely than others to have a strong personal component. Difficulties in relationships within one site are strongly indicated.
- Transverse fracture
- In long bones, the bone is broken at right angles to the bone's axis. There may or may not be displacement of the two parts of the bone.
- In transverse fractures of virtual teams, members of the team located at a particular site openly acknowledge that they doubt that the team's success is possible if it continues along its current course. In some cases, multiple sites join forces to strike out in a different direction.
- Intervention with the breakaway sites can succeed, but there is an elevated probability that they have good reason to have taken the action they did.
- Comminuted fracture
- In bones, the breaks result in several pieces. Displacement of the pieces is likely.
- This type of fracture in virtual teams has much in common with transverse team fracture. However, in comminuted virtual team fracture, multiple sites decide to strike out in directions of their own.
- Successful intervention likely requires reconvening all team leaders for a restart of the effort.
- Buckled fracture
- In bones, buckled fractures are caused by compression, usually along the axis of a long bone. The fracture is incomplete.
- In virtual teams, a buckled fracture occurs when a team is under extreme deadline pressure that falls most heavily on one site. Team members at that site might experience high levels of stress that could threaten the health of their relationships with team members at other sites, or even their relationships with team members at their own sites.
- Isolating the cause of the intense localized pressure that led to the fracture would be helpful in formulating an approach to healing the fracture.
- Pathologic fracture
- In bones, this sort of break is a result of a disease weakening the bone.
- In virtual teams, pathologic fracture can be the result of rigid siloing, or organizational weakness, or the weakness of the organization's market position. For example, a weak market position can be the root cause of elevated voluntary terminations, or the inability to recruit capable personnel. Staff shortages can then expose the virtual team to fracture.
- Interventions based on the proposition that the root cause lies in the virtual team are unlikely to be effective. Successful intervention must address the causes of organizational weakness.
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