Leading remote teams: how to deal with conflict
At the other end of every computer, every mobile device, there is a person. Every person holds a range of thoughts, a range of assumptions, and a set of preferences about how they want to be treated and how they should treat others.
In the third and final article of this series on leading virtual teams, Pilar Orti highlights those areas of remote teamwork where friction is more likely to arise.
"You can put in place all the technology you want, but you're still working with real people with all their quirky likes and dislikes, petty jealousies, power plays, neuroses and paranoia."
-“Where in the World is My Team” by Terence Brake
When team members behave in unexpected ways, we make assumptions about their intentions; when we lack information about our work and our colleagues, we fill in the details ourselves.
If we think we’re kept out of the loop of discussions that should involve us, we begin to feel isolated and undervalued.
Working in teams is difficult.
Working in remote teams can be even harder if we don’t spend time designing how we communicate, making a deliberate attempt to create a culture where problems can be easily flagged and where disagreements can be talked through.
Following previous articles on embracing a remote team mindset and managing performance in remote teams, this articles covers aspects of remote teamwork that might be lead to conflict, how to create a culture where healthy conflict can emerge, and what to do when destructive conflict arises.
The remote challenge
The flow of information in remote teams is often not as rich as in the colocated space. Unless it’s deliberately communicated, we lack information on people’s mood, on people’s context. Our inability to put our team member’s behaviour into context can result in misinterpretation.
For example, I might think you’re ignoring my messages, when actually you’ve decided to go out for a walk because it’s the first time you’ve seen the sun in two weeks. Unfortunately, you have forgotten to change your logged in status, which has stayed as “available”.
On top of that, when most of our communication is text-based, to seek clarification takes effort; to disagree with someone takes effort; to make our voice heard is a real effort. It’s easier to remove yourself from the conversation and carry on with your work in isolation.
Healthy conflict (disagreements around how a task should be carried out, confrontations about how we should operate as a team) can only emerge when there is trust amongst team members.
Unhealthy conflict (attacks on others’ behaviour, deliberately being unhelpful, ignoring someone’s messages) emerges when there is an absence of trust. We therefore can’t look at navigating conflict, without looking at trust.
The role of trust
We tend to trust those whose behaviour we can predict or that we can understand. When we don’t understand the reasons behind someone’s actions we fill in the gaps with our own assumptions.
Understanding how team members are different in their communication preferences, in how they like to collaborate and in the values that guide their actions, all help individuals to focus on the work instead of on trying to figure out other people’s intentions.
In remote teams we can be deliberate about building trust and getting to know each other through ongoing communication. For example, team members can share regularly the work they’re doing, even if they don’t need others’ input or if it doesn’t directly impact others in the team.
If we get used to sharing our thinking around the work and how we feel about it, it can be that little bit easier to talk about it when we disagree. (For guidelines on how to “narrate your work”, see article 2 in this series.)
A lack of context of what’s going on in people’s lives can also result in a lack of empathy and understanding. Build in some personal time in your meetings and create space in your text-based communications for people to share non-work related information should they wish to.
And even though it can feel contrived, consider some specific 'team-building' exercises to encourage disclosure of values and interests, as part of your training and development activities
While personal information is not always of interest to others, getting to know the values that drive people’s decisions or behaviours can help to understand those who are different to us. It can also help us to feel closer to others, which might in turn help us to assume “positive intent” when we feel challenged by others.
As well as an absence of trust, which can be the source of conflict in any kind of team, there are certain aspects of the remote set-up that can result in interpersonal conflict.
1. Multi-tool communication
Avoiding conflict due to the diversification of technology is one of the strongest arguments for having a team charter that clearly sets out what tool/platform will be used for what kind of communication, and how regularly it should be used/updated.
Make sure there is agreement on what terms like “urgent” mean and on expectations to reply to messages or act on instructions/requests. Also make clear how comments/feedback/suggestions/task requests will be made.
2) Not enough tech diversification
While having too many platforms to communicate might cause problems, restricting the kind of technology we use can also lead to poor quality communication.
Some people are great at communicating their ideas and emotions in writing; some people can adapt their communication style when they can read their receptor’s face; audio-only conversations help some of us focus on hearing “the unspoken” through someone’s tone of voice etc. Use a mixture of media and when possible, enable the emergence of both asynchronous and synchronous conversations.
3) Beware of speed
If your team relies mainly on asynchronous communication, you’ll find that the regularity with which people check their messages varies. Take this into account when asking for input into decisions or when having conversations that affect the whole team.
The conversation can easily be dominated by those who regularly check the platform throughout the day. Those arriving late to the conversation might feel detached from it or feel like their contribution is unnecessary or undervalued. (This becomes even more relevant if you’re working with freelancers, part-timers or people across different timezones.)
4) Invisible work
When we’re away from our teammates, we can’t see how they’re struggling at the computer, how often they’re answering the phone, how long they are in meetings or how long they’ve spent sketching out a new strategy.
If we feel that others aren’t working as hard as we are, this might build resentment. Regular updates (either through meetings or asynchronously) can help contribute towards a sense of fairness in the team.
5) Invisible people
Text-based communication (where we don’t have the receiver directly in front of us or at the other end of the line) can easily take a harsher tone than verbal communication. It can also lead us to say things that we wouldn’t say face to face (an effect referred to as the “online disinhibition effect”).
When most of our communication is in writing, task- and process-based conflict can rapidly turn into interpersonal conflict.
6) Invisible communication
If you have committed to using an online space to communicate with the rest of your team, use it. There are some conversations that have to be private, but there are many more work-related, task-focused communications that can take place in your team’s workspace (eg Slack, MS Teams, Trello etc).
Having these conversations openly help to keep everyone in the team informed and updated on progress.
There will always be cases when you need to have conversations in private or when conversations arise spontaneously outside of the team space. In that case, make sure that if anything has arisen that other people in the team should know about, it is communicated. It’s very easy to leave someone out of the loop.
Stopping the spiral before it gets out of control
Hopefully our team members care enough about each other and their work and this means that there will always be disagreements in our team, as people try to improve processes and innovate. Before well intentioned discussions spiral out of control into unhealthy conflict, here are some things to look out for.
As a manager, you can increase your self-awareness and do your best to role-model helpful behaviour (it isn’t always easy!). You can also look out for team processes and activities that can help nurture a culture of healthy disagreement.
1) If in doubt, ask
If the information someone is giving you in a message is not clear, ask for clarification.
More importantly, if the intention is not clear, ask for clarification. Sometimes we might receive feedback as an attack, when the intention is to be helpful. We add tone of voice in our heads - it’s hard to read a piece of text as neutral.
Another action that can be misinterpreted is when a team member answers a question that we consider to be our domain. We feel undervalued, while the intention of our colleague was to provide a fast answer. (This is of course, one of the dangers of “working out loud”.)
Unfortunately, we also need to be careful when asking for clarification. A positively intended “why?” asked to increase our understanding can be misinterpreted as a confrontation.
2) Practise disagreement
We often find it easier to disagree with others when the stakes are low. We rarely call “conflict” a conversation that starts,”I loved that film!” and is followed by, “Well, I didn’t like it at all.”
And we rarely feel uncomfortable in seeking understanding, “Why didn’t you like it? I thought it was the best thing I’ve seen all year.”
If all the disagreements we have in our team are voiced when the stakes are high, we’ll always be having difficult conversations. Finding the times to discuss your different opinions and preferences on articles, other companies’ decisions, books etc can serve as a training ground to discussing more difficult matters.
For example, you can organise online Latte and Learn sessions, where different people share something they’ve learned recently (new information, a new skill, a new insight) or regular Bring Your Own Book Club, where team members discuss what they’re currently reading. If it’s difficult to get online together at the same time, organise similar asynchronous activities in dedicated channels/groups in the online space.
While all of this can feel like extra work, it can be a good way of disseminating learning through the team, understanding each other’s values and practising challenging each other in an inquisitive way.
3) Create the space for difficult conversations
If we are conflict-averse, we’ll stay away from criticising somebody’s work (however constructively) or pointing out unhelpful behaviour. This means that the opportunities to learn as a team might never arise.
Creating a framework to have difficult conversations can help those who are conflict-averse. (See article 2 in this series).
Leading by example by regularly seeking feedback from team members to understand which of our actions, behaviours and conversations are most/least helpful, can also help create a culture of feedback in our team.
4) Be the broker, not the problem-solver
Whereas the fear of many managers in remote teams is first that they won’t know what their team members are doing, the truth is that when remote teams get used to the online space, they end up making more of their conversations visible. Which means that, ironically, as a manager you may need to learn to observe less, not more, in order to avoid interfering too often.
When disagreements emerge between team members, it’s very tempting to step in as the manager and make everything alright. Avoid that. We all need to have difficult conversations with colleagues and resolving our own disagreements is part of that long-sought after autonomy many of us seek in our work.
However, sometimes a third party can help resolve conflicts through asking questions early on. Ask for clarification, ask questions that direct team members back to the team’s goals and that put the product/user/client at the centre of the argument.
5) Get personal
By which I mean, get to know your team members so that you can observe a change in their behaviour. Has someone who used to check in every day with the team withdrawn from public conversation? Did one of your team members remain completely quiet during your last team meeting? Has your “Devil’s advocate” turned into a “yes-person”?
While we work with people, there will always be conflict - some will help us create better work, some will pull our attention away from our tasks.
As organisations enable people to work physically away from each other, tech-enabled communication will create new points of friction.
Remembering that there are people at the other end of the device trying to achieve a common goal will be key to navigating inevitable conflict and coming out stronger when we reach the end.
Director of Virtual not Distant, and host of the 21st Century Work Life podcast where we focus on leading remote teams, online collaboration and working in distributed organisations. Now offering "Podcasting for Connection" services, helping organisations create an in-house podcast (that is, regular audio episodes) to amplify culture and foster...