After a conflict is resolved, take steps to prevent future negative emotions.
In this second part of a two-part post (here’s a link to the first part), the discussion turns to “the blame game” where two or more employees want to identify others’ problems exclusively, and, in some cases, move any suspicion of wrongdoing far away from themselves. It’s time to turn our attention on how to resolve virtual team conflict.
In our previous scenario, Marnie and Tracy were blaming each other for critical errors in their data management and reporting roles. There are several challenging factors that you uncovered, including a feedback loop that was broken.
After several discussions with Marnie and Tracy to reorient both of them to the business objectives and identify what needs to happen in the future. Everything looks resolved on the surface, but you still worry that the necessary changes won’t “stick.”
Two weeks after the initial problem was uncovered, your fears are confirmed. The communication problems are better, but in recent conversations with both Marnie and Tracy, you detect some animosity and potentially hurt feelings. Marnie’s communications to Tracy are clipped and blunt, which you can see even in email exchanges. The blame behaviors have stopped, at least outwardly, but you want both Marnie and Tracy to be able to collaborate effectively in the future. You know that another stressful situation will bring this conflict back to the table.
The work that both Marnie and Tracy do is critical to your team’s success. There is no way around it: both of your employees must collaborate to support your customers. In a recent informal discussion with Tracy, she noted, “I’m working hard to make sure the data files I send to Marnie are correct and delivered as soon as I can send them. I’m still receiving files at the last minute. It’s true, there aren’t as many errors, but I’m still really under a lot of pressure to get the reports to the clients in a short amount of time. It’s very stressful working with her.”
Getting past hurt feelings
Conflict can often trigger feelings of resentment and dissatisfaction for both parties involved in the conflict. Often, these feelings are triggered by personality clashes and ego conflicts, and are deep-seated sources of emotional discomfort. In this case, Marnie and Tracy both feel that the other person is trying to “make work more difficult” by choosing behaviors with negative impacts on the other.
What is leadership’s role in conflict?
As a leader, and especially as a distance leader, this is NOT the time to manage by exception, where you only get involved when there is a problem. Instead, this will require intervention on your part, and probably some modeling and discussion of team dynamics. Conflicts can continue to grow beneath the surface until an employee leaves or there is an even more difficult-to-resolve conflict.
You have to know your employees
One of the most effective methods for defusing conflict-related emotional responses is to know your employees well enough to emphasize strengths instead of weaknesses in conflict-related conversations. Senior and Swailes (2016) suggest that increased informal conversations and discussing underlying tensions will help identify and eliminate the conflict-related stressors. There is definitely something valuable to understanding the internal values of your employees, and then building a personal relationship with your team members that helps defuse tensions. (On a side note, I have completed somewhere around 20 different inventories in my career to measure personality, leadership capability, or general perspectives. While they are fun in a horoscope-ish sort of way, unless the interpretation of the results helps change your behaviors, they are not helpful.)
There are some concrete steps you can take to soothe the savage conflict beast, some of which are listed below.
- Identify personality and ego clashes. Of course, this assumes that you know your employees well enough to identify where the “hot buttons” are for each of them. In the example above, Tracy’s need for enough time to get the customer reports done is a key factor in her stress level. Marnie, on the other hand, feels like Tracy is being “too harsh” in her requests. Helping each of your team members understand the needs of the others in the group supports better interpersonal dynamics when you are not part of the conversations.
- Focus on performance management. Sooner or later, the work must be completed. By reinforcing the strengths and the successes that each person brings to the work tasks, you will also be helping others on the team see the contributions that each person makes. Remember, the goal is to have a team that performs well, and that team members appreciate the work that others complete.
- Evaluate workloads and resources. If possible, it might be time to rethink some of the business processes that could be adding additional stress to your employees. This could be through hiring a contractor for a limited time to address work backlogs, or it could also be through reassigning tasks from one person to another to alleviate stress and support team performance.
- Reinforce shared goals. Another key step is to emphasize and reinforce the shared goals. Yes, being friendly with your colleagues is important, but sometimes, getting the work done takes the highest priority. In this case, I recommend having small group discussions to reinforce shared work objectives and goal measurements. (Honestly, this is a good idea to do periodically anyway, but after a conflict, it will help reorient team members on the “important” tasks.)
- Discuss and model appropriate conflict behaviors. Perhaps this should be #1 on this list, but this one separates good leaders from mediocre leaders. Understanding that conflict is a part of the normal workplace AND that we are all expected to be part of the conflict resolution process is an essential message for all team members. For example, addressing conflict resolution strategies for 10 minutes a month in your weekly staff meetings can give your team members ideas for resolving conflicts when they occur.
The Results and Resolving Conflict as a Distance Leader
Conflict resolution is a practice rather than a single set of steps. Understanding that there are many strategies for overcoming conflict will help you find the right approach for your particular situations. What strategies work for you?
Comment with your answers below!
I found the text Organizational Change, 5th ed. by Barbara Senior and Stephen Swailes an excellent reference for addressing organizational changes and challenges. Chapter 5 on Power, Politics, and Change is a fantastic resource perfect for distance leaders who are addressing team conflict. The following affiliate link will allow you to get a copy from Amazon.com. Please note that I do receive a small commission at no cost to you.
Senior, B., & Swailes, S. (2016). Organizational Change, 5th ed. Harlow, UK: Pearson Education Limited.