Top Tips On How To Recognise And Manage Conflict Remotely
The first thing to do is to remind yourself that conflict in a team is quite normal, especially for remote teams, who traditionally experience more conflict. A remote team that doesn’t experience any is probably not working as a team at all.
To spot hidden conflict, watch out for these warning signs:
- Too much harmony over a prolonged period. This could be symptomatic of avoidance to voice concerns in ‘the room’, especially if it’s about you.
- Moaning in private about others rather than to others. This tells you the team doesn’t feel safe enough to address each other but are relying on you to rescue them, a sure sign there is insufficient psychological safety in the team
- Cliques. Watch out for them in the virtual team. Sub-teaming is fine but not if they are formed on the closeness of relationships rather than by the goals that have to be achieved. Cliques result in feelings of exclusion and ultimately shared goals are less likely to be achieved.
Different sets of expectations
Virtually all the conflicts I have seen in 25 years of working as a team development consultant emanate from different sets of expectations between team members. At Team-Up we have identified 3 sets of conflict reducing expectations that all sit in what we call the ‘Get Set’ phase of teaming. Here you are building cognitive rather than emotional-based trust. Cognitive trust is easier and quicker to establish, especially in more extreme, pressurised contexts such as the virtual team. The cognitions to align are (in order of root cause):
- Expectations about the ‘Mission’ of the team (its purpose, vision and goals)
- Expectations about the ‘Plans’ of the team (its high-level strategy, roles and responsibilities and immediate priorities)
- Expectations about the ‘Disciplines’ of the team (the target norms it stands by, its meeting cadence and its reward mechanisms for working as a team)
In one global transformation team, the purpose of the team was not agreed upon. Some members felt it was to simply transform the organisation, whilst others felt it was to do as much transformation as was possible given the budget they were allocated. This difference led to different expectations about the goals, cost management reporting responsibilities, and how they spent their meeting time. This led to serious amounts of inter-personal conflict, which was the point at which I was called in to help. When the team took the time to actually agree on their purpose, goals, roles and meeting agendas they found their conflict reduced significantly.
In a virtual team, it’s vital the implicit is made explicit and there is no confusion or ambiguity on what has been agreed upon. Misperceptions are more likely to occur on screen than in person. It is super-important to state very clearly the actions, decisions or steps that have been agreed, by who and by when. This is good practice anyway, but especially in the virtual team. It requires plenty of summaries and restatements. It also means stating clearly and regularly the progress you are making each time you meet.
Making agreements in the Get Set phase is your starting point but as was the case with this transformation team, dealing with conflict doesn’t stop there. You have to build psychological safety. So after aligning expectations in the Get Set phase, move onto the Get Safe phase and ensure your team demonstrates buckets of:
- Vulnerability (saying how you feel, admitting what you don’t know asking for help)
- Empathy (listening, supporting, being sensitive to the needs of others)
- Learning (treating mistakes as learning opportunities. Developing a feedback culture)
Our regression analysis from the data of twenty-five teams, many of which are virtual, confirms that more vulnerable teams are more empathic and therefore better learners which in turn makes them more adaptable and better at building constructive rather than destructive tension. When the team is able to have constructive rather than destructive tension it has progressed nicely into our third phase of teaming – Getting Strong. Here the virtual team has constructive rather than destructive tension.
Three golden rules to abide by in this ‘Getting Strong’ phase are:
- Avoid giving negative feedback by email. Unless you have accumulated massive amounts of trust and safety, this rarely works. Do it in person if possible, or at least via VC and tread very carefully. Research shows that without high levels of existing trust, negative feedback worsens and does not improve performance.
- ‘Talk to each other, not about each other’. Be careful as a team leader, you don’t act as the ‘rescuer’, but rather a facilitator of discussions. Don’t tolerate team members moaning about each other. Tell them to speak directly to each other.
- Discuss differences without emotional charge. Getting angry and emotional won’t help. It may sound paradoxical, but encourage the sharing of emotions out not in an emotional way.
In summary, if you apply the Get Set –Get Safe –Get Strong code you will prevent conflict and know what to do when it emerges. Most importantly you will also learn from your conflict.
About the author: George Karseras is the founder and CEO of www.team-up.company and author of new book Build Better Teams: creating winning teams in the digital age