All collaborative groups experience conflict, but the difference between a broken team and a team that stays united is that the latter will deal with the conflict without disrupting the work or the trust they’ve built. Dealing with conflict is difficult enough in teams working face-to-face, but remote teams experience additional challenges.
First, the form of communication that remote teams use most frequently is text-based — whether it’s through email, instant messaging, or discussions within a project management app. Misunderstandings are common; we might think we’re good at interpreting text-based messages, but research shows we get it wrong half the time, so it’s surprising that remote teams don’t experience conflict more often.
Another challenge is time zone differences. Colleagues aren’t always available whenever you need them, and scheduling a phone call, conference or other real-time conversation can require some planning.
Given that conflict is inevitable, especially for remote teams, what can we do to minimize the damage?
#1 Unreliable Technology
One cause of conflict is unreliable technology. Unexpected downtime and equipment problems will always occur, though we can have backup plans that can help us continue working with little interruption. But interruptions do happen and are, at times, expected. Conflict can occur when these technological malfunctions become excuses to not do the work.
In a study about communication and trust in virtual teams, researchers found that in teams with low trust, it was common practice to blame technology for tardiness or inability to accomplish tasks. This fueled an already existing feeling that the technology was unreliable.
On the other hand, teams with high trust levels found workarounds to technological problems. They notified each other when they’d be available for work, even if there were time zone differences.
If the unreliability of technology is an issue, especially if it’s imagined or exaggerated, it helps to implement a group-wide strategy for dealing with it so that tech failure can no longer be uses as an excuse. Does everyone on the team have a backup Internet connection, for example? If not, are there nearby venues with affordable or free Internet access? If they’re without an Internet connection, should the team send SMS updates via Twitter or a similar service? Or should they send a text message to the project coordinator directly? By having an established system in place, team members can have multiple means of contact that aren’t dependent on a single technology or service.
We’ve all been part of a group where at least one person did not contribute much, or at all, during a project. These people are often called free riders or loafers, and their lack of participation can have a negative effect on the team’s performance. But these non-contributing members are rarely malicious or lazy; often, there are barriers that are preventing them from making a proper contribution. For example, in a study of employee participation at Caterpillar Inc. , employees failed to contribute because of fear of criticism, or the feeling that their contributions are irrelevant or insignificant.
If team members are failing to contribute, ask them privately about their barriers and find ways to remove them. If they feel their work is unimportant, highlight the team’s objective and how crucial each individual’s role is. If the barrier is fear of criticism, then the team should learn how to provide constructive feedback (something we’ll also discuss to in the next section).
The worst things you can do about non-participating members are to accept their lack of participation, or to single them out in front of the group. According to the study on communication and trust mentioned earlier, many low trust teams merely accepted or ignored free riders, giving the impression that a lack of participation wasn’t wrong. Pointing out an individual’s lack of participation in front of the group is also a bad idea, since the team will see this as a betrayal and this may lessen overall trust.
#3 Negative Feedback
Harsh criticism can be a source of major conflict within a remote team, especially if carried out in a text-based medium like email or instant messaging. Two characteristics are present in constructive feedback:
- The message should be substantial. Even if you’re conveying something positive about another person’s work, vague responses like “it’s OK” aren’t helpful. Praise must also be specific, so that individuals can identify the improvements they’ve made and also receive recognition for their successes.
- Any disagreement should be indirect. Instead of flat-out disagreeing with a person or a point, high trust teams tend to offer alternatives, together with explanations as to why they may be preferable. This approach may lessen the fear of criticism, since the target of the feedback is distanced from the person receiving it.
What conflicts have you experienced when working with remote teams? How did you prevent or resolve them?