In a fascinating paper about online behavior, psychologist John Suler identifies six factors contributing to what he calls the online disinhibition effect. Briefly, the environment of the Internet and other interactive media contributes to relaxation of inhibitions that suppress antisocial behavior. Team leads and those who charter teams can use Suler's work to guide them in taking steps that limit antisocial behavior in virtual teams.
Conflict is essential to team success. We use conflict to transform the first batch of crazy ideas for solving a problem into the second batch of crazy ideas, which are usually a little less crazy than the first. This process continues until we finally identify promising approaches, including a few that actually work. Without such creative conflict sometimes called task conflict progress is impossible at worst, or slow and expensive at best.
Toxic conflict is another matter. In toxic conflict, exchanges focus on personal attacks. One party might attack the other directly, or he or she might persuade others to shun or attack the target. Left to mature, toxic conflict destroys so many relationships that the team cannot function.
Co-located teams are usually formed from the resident population, some of whom might have participated in prior toxic conflicts. These past conflicts are thus sometimes imported into new teams. In virtual teams, by contrast, conflict importation is more rare because the team's members are drawn from a more diverse population.
Conflicts in virtual teams tend to be of the creative type early in the life of a virtual team. But over time, creative conflict evolves into toxic conflict more easily in virtual teams, in part, because of the online disinhibition effect (ODE).
One factor To recover the constraints that
protect us from each other so
well in face-to-face interactions,
we must make our virtual
environments more like
our face-to-face environmentcontributing to the ODE is what psychologists call dissociative anonymity. In the virtual environment, in contrast to real life, the connection between our personhood and our social actions is weaker than it is in real life. This weakened connection — dissociation — creates a sense of psychological freedom that enables us to say or do (or not say or not do) things that we wouldn't (or would) otherwise.
Team leads and those who charter virtual teams can address this problem by strengthening the connection between team members' personhoods and their actions (or inactions). For example, having teams meet in person at regular intervals helps establish personal relationships that inhibit antisocial behavior. Cross-posting individuals from one site to another temporarily has a similar effect. Using videoconferencing instead of teleconferencing, or teleconferencing instead of email, also helps.
Anything that fosters creation and maintenance of fully human relationships helps to reduce the effects of dissociative anonymity. It won't completely address the problem of toxic conflict in virtual teams, but it's an essential first step. In coming weeks, we'll explore additional measures that can be just as helpful. Next in this series Top Next Issue
For more on Suler's work, visit his Web site. For a lighter look at email in particular, see Daniel Goleman's article, "Flame First, Think Later: New Clues to E-Mail Misbehavior," from The New York Times, February 20, 2007.
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More articles on Conflict Management:
- Corrosive Buts
- When we discuss what we care deeply about, and when we differ, the word "but" can lead us
into destructive conflict. Such a little word, yet so corrosive. Why? What can we do instead?
- Managing Pressure: The Unexpected
- When projects falter, we expect demands for status and explanations. What's puzzling is how often this
happens to projects that aren't in trouble. Here's Part II of a catalog of strategies for managing
- Changing 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.
- How to Prepare for Difficult Conversations
- Difficult conversations can be so scary to contemplate that many of us delay them until difficult conversations
become impossible conversations. Here are some tips for preparing for difficult conversations.
- Rope-A-Dope in Organizational Politics
- Mohammed Ali's strategy of "rope-a-dope" has wide application. Here's an example of applying
it to workplace politics at the organizational scale.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming May 23: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: IX
- An arrogant demeanor is widely viewed as a hallmark of the narcissist. But truly narcissistic arrogance is off the charts. It's something beyond the merely annoying arrogance of a sometimes-obnoxious individual. What is narcissistic arrogance and how can we cope with it? Available here and by RSS on May 23.
- And on May 30: Chronic Peer Interrupters: I
- When making contributions to meeting discussions, we're sometimes interrupted. Often, the interruption is beneficial and saves time. But some people constantly interrupt their peers or near peers, disrespectfully, in a pattern that compromises meeting outcomes. How can we deal with chronic peer interrupters? Available here and by RSS on May 30.
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