In a distributed, virtual team, your team members are working in different locations, sometimes even different time zones, speaking different languages, and coming from different cultures.
They don’t have the same personal rapport as in-office teams; they only collaborate using digital tools, and they might feel isolated and alone. All of this means you must take even more care to manage conflict when it arises. The most important step is to identify the cause of the conflict, so you can choose your role.
Broadly, there are five causes of conflict:
1. Information: Something was missing, incomplete or ambiguous.
2. Environment: Something in the environment leads to the conflict.
3. Skills: People lack the appropriate skills for doing their work.
4. Values: A clash of personal values leads to conflict.
5. Identity: The participants' sense of identity puts them at odds with each other.
Suppose Janine sends Chris a simple email request: “Chris, I need this document by 2pm Friday.” Janine understands exactly what she wants, but there are some potential information gaps:
- If they work in different time zones, whose 2pm is she referring to?
- Which Friday does she mean? She might mean, say, tomorrow, but she can’t assume Chris will read the email in time.
- What format does “this document” need? It could be an editable Word document, a finalised PDF document, or something else.
Most information issues are easy to resolve, and your role is to advise. Point out the problem and guide them towards finding their own solution. In a distributed team, you can handle this by email or some other written communication, or talking directly.
Even with the right information, something in the environment could act as an obstacle. For example:
- In an online meeting, some people are bright and alert at the start of their working day while others are tired and ready to end their day.
- “Office politics” exists even in a distributed team, and some people may be jostling for influence.
- “Head office” staff might resent the freedom of people working from home, and people working from home might resent “taking orders” from head office.
In these cases, your role is to manage. Again, ask the people involved for their suggestions, but the solution might be outside their authority or responsibility.
If it’s within your control, take control. For example, if conflicts arise because of people working in different time zones, you might be able to adjust work days or meeting times to suit everybody. For issues beyond your control, enlist the help of IT, HR, or other parties. But it’s still your responsibility to resolve the issue. This is especially important for your remote team members, who are relying on you to act on their behalf.
Some conflicts occur simply because people don’t have the skills to work in a distributed team. They might not know how to manage their email inbox, start online meetings, use virtual workspaces, or choose the right communication channels. This can lead to misunderstandings, confusion, and perhaps even to the person being subtly excluded in the future.
In this situation, take on the role of trainer or coach. Provide your team members with the professional development they need to build their skills and avoid potential future conflicts.
A clash of values can cause unintended conflicts. For example, people from different cultures might have different expectations about punctuality, gender roles, standards of living, and appropriate professional behaviour.
Here, your role is mediator. Ideally, you want to help guide the conflicting parties to resolve the issue themselves, so mediate the discussion to keep it civil, professional, and ultimately working to a fair and positive resolution.
Keep all communication clear and unambiguous. It’s difficult to resolve these issues by email or other written means. Bring the parties together by teleconference, video conference call, or even in person. If these conflicts fall outside your area of responsibility, they might need HR support.
Finally, conflicts can arise when people clash because of their deep personal beliefs about their identity.
- One person feels a piece of work is beneath them and passes it on to someone they consider “inferior”.
- Two people refuse to back down from conflicting positions because they think “losing” the argument would be humiliating.
When conflict is based on somebody’s identity, your role is that of counsellor. But keep in mind that most of these issues should be handled by your HR team.
Managing conflict: a skill all of us need
Conflict is a normal part of humans working together, and part of your role as a leader is to steer your team members through it when it inevitably arises. Don’t be afraid of it, and don’t shy away from it. Be open to it, be alert to it, and address it as quickly as possible.
There’s no doubt our workplaces will become increasingly distributed, so the conflict resolution skills you learn and apply today will prepare you for being a leader tomorrow.
Welcome to the future!
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