The first step is knowing what to observe

I had been given a project by my boss, and was told to get some of the pertinent details from his administrative assistant. Seemed simple enough. There was some travel involved, some plans that had to be made, and some logistics to be managed. That was easy to do, and with Betty’s* help, I was able to coordinate the project and get everything started.

What I didn’t count on was the drama I had created behind the scenes.

Here’s what I didn’t know: my administrative assistant, Tara*, and Betty had struggled to work collaboratively in the past. When Betty called Tara to get some of my travel information to schedule the meeting, the fuse was lit on the bomb.

Unfortunately, Tara didn’t say anything about it right away, but was extremely “sharp” with me when we spoke on the phone. I admit that I am not the most perceptive person when it comes to recognizing certain behaviors, so I thought she was just having a bad day.

Eventually, though, I asked Tara if she was okay, because it seemed like she was really frustrated or angry about something. Since she had been holding her irritation back, it came out in a bit of a flood.

Tara felt that I had chosen Betty over her by asking for her help with this project. Tara’s feelings were hurt, and she felt betrayed that I did not trust her to complete the tasks that I had asked Betty to do. Even when I explained the source of my actions, the emotional behaviors that already existed between Tara and Betty made it hard for her to understand why I had worked the way I did.

Afterwards, I wondered if I could have perceived things or acted differently to prevent this problem, a conflict that I did not even know existed.

Is conflict good or bad for your team?

Conflict is a powerful tool in many teams, by providing opportunities to debate and consider alternate approaches to problem-solving. In more positive contexts, employees appreciate conflict and use it to text ideas, collaborate dynamically, and build trust and respect for one another. Think about how cooks work in a kitchen, developing and honing recipes. Ideas must be challenged through positive conflict to make dishes and combine flavors that will be appealing.

But negative conflict is insidious, and emerges through communications and actions that only get worse if left untreated. Negative conflict occurs when the messages or the interpretation of feedback go from professional to personal. Sometimes this can be from very pointed comments, but negative conflict can also emerge when trust and expectations are not aligned. 

In the example above, Tara and Betty did not trust each other and were in negative conflict. I unwittingly stepped right into the minefield, assuming that we were all working well together. What could I have done differently to identify and overcome the conflict?

Negative virtual team conflict is largely hidden

For distance leaders, the lack of hidden informational cues about your team can lead to missing conflict until it becomes an erupting emotional volcano. You may not be aware that two or more of your team members are angry with you, upset with each other, or frustrated with their work situation. Additionally, some workers may not be able to articulate the specific issues that cause them emotional reactions.

Whether it’s people saying personally harmful words to another employee (“I guess we should have gone to someone else to fix this problem”), patterns of microaggressions (such as leaving team members off of group emails or meeting invitations), or actively refusing to work with other team members, negative conflict will lower your team performance. In some cases, conflict will also cause problems requiring HR intervention.

Negative conflict is related to a sensation of distance

The trick to identifying hidden conflict is related to your interactions with your team members. Communication and trust are essential, so while you may not be able to resolve this in a day, building team connections that inform you when there are problems is a core component of addressing these types of negative conflicts. Strong communication and trust help team members feel “close” to one another in activities and communication, and that helps build the trust to turn negative conflicts into more positive, creative conflicts.

Lojeski and Reilly (2010) refer to a Virtual Distance Index, and describe the personal components that help build trust and lower negative conflict:

  • Trust among the team members
  • Innovative behaviors used to problem-solve within the team
  • Organizational citizenship, or the degree of voluntary helping and sharing information
  • Satisfaction with the work environment
  • Clarity of vision for the role and shared common vision for the team

I find these fascinating because you, as a leader, can make a huge impact on how conflict is perceived within a team. You can have a direct impact on each of these factors, and essentially “buffer” the team against underground conflicts.

The Process

The factors from Lojeski and Reilly also give some hints on how to identify hidden virtual team conflict.

  1. Perceived lack of trust among team members. Are team members indicating that they won’t work with others because their requests aren’t handled effectively or in an appropriate time frame? Either a conflict occurred in the past or is currently underway.
  2. Lack of voluntary collaboration. If you see that team members are not sharing information effectively (listen carefully during team status meetings), then you may be witnessing the effects of hidden conflict.
  3. Team members unclear about the team vision. When team members don’t feel that they are working together on a common goal or objective, conflicts often emerge because each employee is interpreting the vision differently.
  4. Low team participation or satisfaction. When people in the team aren’t satisfied with their interactions with others on the team, individuals withdrawing from team communication is an indicator that negative conflict may be occurring.

While overcoming conflict like this is for another post, I suggest you work to communicate effectively with your team members at every level to identify where the conflicts are occurring. Building effective feedback patterns and supporting strong team vision expectations help turn negative conflict into positive conflict, even though you may need to be directly involved in resolving some of the team members issues.

    The Results and <Relation to Text>

    Do you have any other experiences or strategies for overcoming hidden virtual team conflict?

    Comment with your answers below!

    Links

    Lojeski and Reilly’s text is a great reference for considering team interactions, virtual team trust, and “shortening” virtual distance.

    The affiliate link will allow you to get a copy of each of these texts from Amazon.com. Please note that I do receive a small commission at no cost to you.

    References

    Lojeski, K. S., & Reilly, R. R. (2010). Leading the virtual workforce: How great leaders transform organizations in the 21st Century (14). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 

    Photo credit: Photo by Jim Strasma on Unsplash

    *Names changed to protect the innocent.

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