Managing Conflict in Virtual Teams

Conflict is an inevitable characteristic of all work teams. Considering the complex dynamics of virtual teams, understanding and managing conflict becomes a big challenge. Conflict can be both - constructive and destructive.

When members of the team present different viewpoints about a task and positively contribute to decision making, it leads to constructive conflict. Destructive conflict results when group members doubt each other’s intentions behind difference in opinions.

Virtual teams present a very paradoxical situation because on one hand virtual team members are more task-oriented and therefore do not get into any interpersonal issues, while on the other hand, due to the lack of face-to-face interactions, task related conflict transpires into interpersonal/relationship conflicts. This impacts collaborative efforts, hinders productivity and decrease morale.

It is the key responsibility of a virtual team leader to prevent task-related disagreement to devolve into interpersonal conflict. A strong leader who can anticipate team members’ expectations and disagreements acts as the lifeguard when any problem arises.

The first and foremost task is to ensure a strong and well-planned orientation at the time of project initiation. This is the time when ground rules are set, expectation clarified and responsibilities delegated. Good team building activities and icebreakers should also form part of the virtual team orientation session. Members should be encouraged to share their backgrounds, past experiences and other informal information about themselves. This would help members to relate to each other.

Constant flow of communication should be encouraged. Different media can be used to share information and knowledge. Online discussion board in a shared virtual workspace is a great platform for virtual team members to discuss their opinions openly, voice their concerns and connect with each other in a relaxed and casual way. This generates transparency and builds trust among the members. Thus people do not attribute any hidden agenda behind a task related disagreement.

During the course of project, virtual team leader should promote team bonding activities outside work such as a 5 minute small talk session before project meetings etc. Such actions keep the members engaged as well as committed to the common goal. A daily updates from all the members about the four things - work completed, issues/challenges faced, assistance required and next day agenda - goes a long way in avoiding any seeping conflicts.

Virtual team leaders are mainly responsible for dealing with conflicts but a lot of time, effort and energy that goes in resolving the conflicts, can be saved if utmost care is taken during hiring & selection of virtual team members. Hiring people with right attitude along with their technical skills and knowledge is necessary. Right attitude in the context of virtual teams means intercultural competence, tolerance and understanding. This would reduce the situations of interpersonal conflicts among the members.

Another cause of conflicts in virtual teams is lack of non-verbal features of communication including gestures, body language and facial expressions, especially when communication is done through emails. For example, many a times a simple question/query sounds interrogatory and reproachful resulting in negative feelings and misunderstandings. Therefore, as much as possible the problem discussions should be done via videoconferencing and other rich synchronous media.

Thus we see by keeping in mind such simple and inexpensive action steps, virtual team leaders can increase the productivity and commitment of their dispersed work teams.

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