My parental reflex is to say, “I don’t care who started it, but I am going to end it NOW.”

Conflict on teams is inevitable, and should be expected as well as addressed. If you’re an experienced leader, then you know how conflict is a normal working part of team dynamics. If you’re new to the leadership role, then buckle up: the conflict that emerges will be something that surprises you when you least expect it, and having a few “go to” behaviors will help. This post is all about that.

In this first part of a two-part post, 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. We are going to cover how to recognize conflict on a virtual team. The second part, to be published in a few weeks, will be on how to address team conflict.

Ever played the game “Mafia”? At least in the United States, this game is all about accusing others in the group of being the bad guy by keeping from being accused yourself. One of the reasons it is such a popular party game is because it smacks of real life, where making assumptions about others is a great way to shift attention on your behaviors to others’ negative behaviors. The ultimate goal of the game is to appear blameless yourself, while ensuring that others’ accusations never turn in your direction.

At best, accusing others identifies problems that exist in the work team. At worst, blaming others creates a system focused on mistrust and suspicion. 

Imagine this scenario: One of your computer programming employees, Tracy, is complaining about a colleague, Marnie, who works in a very distant location with several hours’ time difference. Their work covers two different processes that work in concert, so both of your employees need to complete their work to develop the final product. Additionally, Tracy’s work is then used by Marnie to make data collection adjustments for a final customer product.

The complaint is basically that Marnie is not doing her job by providing the scrubbed data files that Tracy needs to complete her client work. Instead, she has found that the files she is receiving contain logic and data structure errors, including duplicates and invalid values. To complicate matters further, Tracy and Marnie work at a time difference of 8 hours, effectively separating their workdays.

Upon speaking with Marnie, you find that she is equally as frustrated because the feedback she needs to complete her data analyses is often delayed or postponed, resulting in a rushed or even panicked situation. You may have suspected something like this was happening, but now you have clearer indicators that communication is not flowing the way it should.

So the setup is really about communication, as suggested by Clemons and Kroth (2011) and Lepsinger and DeRosa (2010). Your two employees are not able to communicate with one another effectively, and that is leading to team conflict. As the leader in this scenario, there are plenty of approaches you can take, but here’s one thing you don’t want to do: you don’t want to be the go-between person for their conflict.

The Process

This conflict is based on communication and timing, from what you can tell. Sure, you may find that there are other issues present, but for this example, let’s develop a process that will lead to quick resolution to the immediate workflow/conflict problem.

  1. Facilitate communication. This is not the time for a group meeting, but I would suggest using what you learn for larger department meetings. Facilitating communication means that you speak with both of the parties involved, develop a common time when they can both be on a conference call.
  2. Use video when possible. It is often easy to blame someone who is a disembodied voice on the other end of a speakerphone. A video connection makes it much more personal and will hopefully drive resolution much faster.
  3. Provide an overview of the situation. This step will require you to describe facts as you see them, not feelings or any of the blame indicators that were brought to you initially. Be very clear in stating that this is not about the emotional reasons for the problems, but about the broken business process.
  4. Review the objectives. Next, remind the people on the call of the end results that are required for a successful project. By emphasizing the collaborative nature of the business goal, you can reorient your employees to look beyond their specific role and see the larger set of activities.
  5. Invite your two employees to develop a better process. You will need to moderate this carefully, as you don’t want the accusations to start flying. To be honest, that may happen anyway if personalities and sensibilities collide. However, if everyone can stay focused on the objective(s), then you should be able to guide everyone to a resolution.
  6. Set a follow-up call to check on the process, then repeat as needed. This is critical, because you want to check on how the changes have been implemented as well as any further adjustments that need to occur. I also recommend speaking with each of the employees individually, and then as a team, so you can deal with any emotional responses that emerge from resolving the conflict.

The Results and Conflict Resolution

Addressing conflict using this strategy can provide each of the people involved in the conflict with a voice and an opportunity to fix a broken or damaged process. However, by dealing with the emotions individually, and stressing the objectives and resolutions as a group, you will hopefully be able to avoid many of the inflammatory behaviors behind the “blame game.”

What strategies do you use to resolve conflict and virtual employee miscommunications?
How do you measure your success with conflict resolution approaches?
How do you know when a conflict has been resolved?

Comment with your answers below!

Links

Want to know more about overcoming conflict in a virtual work environment? I can recommend the Managing the Mobile Workforce: Leading, Building, and Sustaining Virtual Teams by David Clemons and Michael Kroth (2011), and Virtual Team Success:  A Practical Guide for Working and Leading from a Distance by Lepsinger and DeRosa (2010). The following affiliate links will allow you to get a copy from Amazon.com. Please note that I do receive a small commission at no cost to you.

      

References

Clemons, D., & Kroth, M. (2011). Managing the mobile workforce: Leading, building, and sustaining virtual teams. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

DeRosa, D. (2010). Virtual team success: A practical guide for working and leading from a distance. Hoboken, NJ: Pfeiffer.

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