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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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- And on March 7: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: II
- Narcissistic behavior at work threatens the enterprise. People who behave narcissistically systematically place their own interests and welfare ahead of anyone or anything else. In this Part II of the series we consider the narcissistic preoccupation with superiority fantasies. Available here and by RSS on March 7.
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