As we saw last time, toxic conflict in virtual teams can arise from the nature of the virtual environment, because in the virtual environment, we sometimes engage in behavior that we self-inhibit when we interact face-to-face (F2F). One factor contributing to this phenomenon is that the virtual environment supports only a weakened form of the connection between our personhood and our actions. In his study of online behavior, psychologist John Suler calls this mechanism dissociative anonymity an element of what he calls the online disinhibition effect.
Suler identifies another mechanism that he calls minimizing authority. Briefly, in the virtual environment, differences in personal status are not as evident as they are F2F, which can encourage behavior in the virtual environment that would be rare F2F. A familiar example is the stream of sometimes-disrespectful email messages that CEOs receive from people all through their organizations. Minimizing authority contributes to the online disinhibition effect by suppressing the inhibitions people have about addressing the CEO, and in what manner they address him or her.
Within virtual teams, minimizing authority has analogous consequences. Here are three examples.
- Ineffective facilitation
- An effective facilitator can impose order F2F with presence alone. Sidebars and interruptions are rare. In the virtual environment, especially one that lacks video, facilitators have much more difficulty maintaining order on the basis of presence, because projecting one's presence is difficult. Muting everyone except the recognized contributor does help, but the meeting pays a price for this in terms of spontaneity and the inability to interrupt legitimately, as one might do for a process question.
- Ineffective project leadership
- Although project managers generally lack formal authority over the members of teams they lead, they do have some authority within the project context. They can use that authority, their personal relationships, and their personal presence to craft a microculture that enables team success. But in the virtual environment, the phenomenon of minimizing authority makes this more difficult. Progress suffers.
- Minimizing subordination
- Minimizing authority In the virtual environment, especially
one that lacks video, facilitators
have difficulty maintaining order
on the basis of presencein the virtual environment also affects those with authority, whose perceptions of their own authority are based, in part, on their experiences of others' perceptions of them. In the virtual environment, since the perceptions of others are affected by minimizing authority, those with authority sometimes see themselves as less authoritative. Moreover, when others behave in a manner that in real life would be viewed as challenging to authority, those with authority can experience a feeling of being disrespected. This can be upsetting, leading to misjudgments, miscommunications, and misbehavior on the part of those with authority.
Loss of effective facilitation, loss of effective leadership, and feeling disrespected make the virtual environment vulnerable to toxic conflict. We'll continue this exploration next time. First in this series | 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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