Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 7, Issue 42;   October 17, 2007: Virtual Conflict

Virtual Conflict

by

Conflict, both constructive and destructive, is part of teamwork. As virtual teams become more common, we're seeing more virtual conflict — conflict that crosses site boundaries. Dealing with destructive conflict is difficult enough face-to-face, but in virtual teams, it's especially tricky.
Vincent's Bedroom in Arles, by Vincent Van Gogh

Vincent's Bedroom in Arles, by Vincent Van Gogh, painted in September, 1889, less than a year before his death. The painting exhibits the distortions characteristic of many of his works. These particular distortions are similar in some ways to the distortions we see in images produced by the cameras used in many computer-based video communications systems. Although the video distortions have a variety of psychological effects, depending on the precise nature of the distortion, the effects are more significant when the viewer has never met the person viewed. The viewer forms impressions that don't actually fit reality. And many of us are uncomfortable about our images as represented in these systems. This complexity creates what might be called "video risk," which appears as an elevated probability that people might not understand each other. Enhancing image fidelity by employing up-to-date and high-quality equipment might well be worth the cost. Image courtesy VanGoghGallery.com.

For teams, creative conflict is essential to high performance. It helps them find solutions that no team member could have developed alone. But not all conflict is creative. Some is destructive, or toxic.

In creative conflict, people might contend about each other's ideas, but they do so respectfully, often with humor and fun. In toxic conflict, they contend with each other about each other, disrespectfully. Even when they're discussing each other's ideas, they do so, in part, to attack each other. And some attacks are purely personal.

Any team can fall into toxic conflict, but virtual teams are most at risk, and they have more difficulty healing. Here are some tips and insights for virtual team leaders who want to avoid or deal with toxic conflict.

Our communication channels put us at risk
Virtual teams use communication channels such as email, video, telephone, and instant messaging. All are psychologically "half-duplex" channels — they let us focus on sending or receiving, but not both at once. Face-to-face communication, by contrast, is psychologically full duplex. We can and do make adjustments as we're speaking, according to our reading of the receiver's response. Since we can't do this in half-duplex communication, we send longer messages, often offending, ignoring, or hurting our partners.
Keeping messages short lets you find out how you're doing in time to make adjustments.
We underestimate the toxicity of virtual conflict
Because we see only those elements that can squeeze through our communication channels, toxic virtual conflict is less visible than is toxic local conflict. If toxicity is evident even from a distance, it's probably worse than an equally obtrusive toxic local conflict.
Recalibrate your If you wait before intervening
to be as certain in a virtual
conflict as you would be in
a local conflict, you're
probably acting too late
perceptions. What can safely be ignored in a local conflict might not be ignorable in a virtual conflict.
Act prematurely
If you wait before intervening to be as certain in a virtual conflict as you would be in a local conflict, you're probably acting too late.
If you suspect a toxic conflict, don't wait passively for more information. Do whatever is necessary, including traveling to the remote site, to resolve the ambiguity between toxic conflict and creative conflict.
Meet frequently face-to-face
When people know each other, they can make corrections for the deficiencies of their communication channels, because they have a reservoir of trust, and because they can take account of the effects of the medium.
To trust each other, people must know each other. Face-to-face meetings are the only effective way to help them establish and maintain relationships. When we decide not to pay for face-to-face meetings, we're deciding to pay instead for the effects of toxic conflict.

If a toxic conflict is underway in your team, estimate its true cost — including the cost of being late to market — and compare it to the cost of bringing everyone together. After you recover from the shock, schedule that face-to-face meeting. Go to top Top  Next issue: Worst Practices  Next Issue

303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsIs your organization a participant in one or more global teams? Are you the owner/sponsor of a global team? Are you managing a global team? Is everything going well, or at least as well as any project goes? Probably not. Many of the troubles people encounter are traceable to the obstacles global teams face when building working professional relationships from afar. Read 303 Tips for Virtual and Global Teams to learn how to make your global and distributed teams sing. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenLPMlDGEPxNLaQXLmner@ChachlpSTQMofRVRgTLWoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

A calm seaAn Emergency Toolkit
You've just had some bad news at work, and you're angry or really upset. Maybe you feel like the target of a vicious insult or the victim of a serious injustice. You have work to do, and you want to respond, but you must first regain your composure. What can you do to calm down and start feeling better?
The Night Café, by Vincent Van Gogh, 1888Changing the Subject: II
Sometimes, in conversation, we must change the subject, but we also do it to dominate, manipulate, or assert power. Subject changing — and controlling its use — can be important political skills.
A senator rests on a cot in the Old Senate Chamber during a filibusterUntangling Tangled Threads
In energetic discussions, topics and subtopics get intertwined. The tangles can be frustrating. Here's a collection of techniques for minimizing tangles in complex discussions.
Fugu Rubripes, the Fugu fishEmbolalia and Stuff Like That: I
When we address others, we sometimes use filler — so-called automatic speech or embolalia — without thinking. Examples are "uh," "um," and "er," but there are more complex forms, too. Embolalia are usually harmless, if mildly annoying to some. But sometimes they can be damaging.
A piece of chocolate cakeEgo Depletion and Priority Setting
Setting priorities for tasks is tricky when we find the tasks unappealing, because we have limited energy for self-control. Here are some strategies for limiting these effects on priority setting.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness, Conflict Management and Virtual and Global Teams for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Probably not the kind of waiting we have in mind hereComing July 26: Strategic Waiting
Time can be a tool. Letting time pass can be a strategy for resolving problems or getting out of tight places. Waiting is an often-overlooked strategic option. Available here and by RSS on July 26.
Srinivasa RamanujanAnd on August 2: Linear Thinking Bias
When assessing the validity of problem solutions, we regard them as more valid if their discovery stories are logical, than we would if they're less than logical. This can lead to erroneous assessments, because the discovery story is not the solution. Available here and by RSS on August 2.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenZATqNqGUebOLLWEEner@ChacGWOKwgTOFMqrrppNoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.