In recent months, I’ve been writing a series of blogs based on the research AWA conducted into the virtual workforce, and the things that help it function productively. The core of the research findings is a series of factors which are strongly correlated to the performance of teams, and there are many additional activities and interventions that contribute to ensuring those aspects really support team working.

When we trust each other, we are more likely to share information and skills with each other. We are also more likely to find constructive ways to deal with any miscommunication or conflict that arises. However, when we work virtually, there is more potential for things to go wrong. Fortunately, there are strategies that can help teams to better connect and accommodate conflict, which are explored below.

Is conflict more likely in virtual teams?

If you think about how conflict becomes obvious when you are working in close proximity with colleagues, you can start to see how it would be more easily missed when we work apart. Imagine that you’ve been in a face-to-face meeting with a colleague that repeatedly spoke over you, contradicted you and generally disrespected your contribution to the discussion. Following the meeting, you may choose to avoid the person, perhaps even giving them the cold shoulder or being sharp with them. Body language, tone of voice, physical proximity, eye contact, and aspects of your social interaction after the event would all send signals to your colleague that all is not well. Whether they pick up on this is a moot point, but suffice to say that there is at least an opportunity for them to observe that you don’t seem happy.

If the same experience happened in a virtual meeting, there is not the same opportunity to catch visual or audio clues as to the damage inflicted. At the end of the virtual meeting, everyone hangs up, leaving you feeling unhappy at your treatment, but unless you go out of your way to share how you felt, the other person is probably unaware that conflict has arisen between you. These aspects of interpersonal dynamics are potentially more difficult to work through when we are apart – particularly if our relationships aren’t strongly founded, preventing us speaking up and expressing how we feel.

Research has shown that there are many obstacles to the realisation that conflict has arisen in virtual teams– including aspects such as time differences and sequencing challenges if we work in different time zones, the use of virtual technology for communication (where it’s possible to switch off video to avoid showing how you feel), and absence of the social aspects of our contact with each other (we might turn away from each other if we were in the same space, reduce eye contact, not smile etc.). So virtual teams often take longer to identify that there is conflict, and can be slower in seeking to manage it.

If we are protecting our team relationships through the maintenance of cohesion and trust, then we are better placed to weather potential misunderstandings, poor communication and conflict, but research shows that training teams in “teamwork” has a highly beneficial effect on their ability to address and resolve conflict – indeed making them stronger.

Researchers have concluded that effective conflict management enhances the level of cohesion within the team, helping to find ways to balance disagreements related to the task and their eventual performance and satisfaction with the way the team has performed.

Responding to conflict

When researching this topic [i], I discovered that conflict management is one of the most studied issues associated with teams. It is one of the keys to determining whether conflicts are healthy and productive or detrimental to the way teams work. Well established research from the 1980s gave birth to “Dual Concern Theory” (Pruitt and Rubin, 1986)[ii] which identified two key dimensions – concern for ourselves and concern for others. The degree to which we are personally (and as a team) focused on one or the other will affect the way we respond to and deal with conflict within our team.

The diagram below shows these two dimensions, which have been interpreted by others as referring to assertiveness (we are most interested in satisfying our own needs and interests) vs empathy / cooperativeness (which is a concern for satisfying the other party’s needs and interests). The model shows that there is a fundamental question about which takes priority when conflict arises – the achievement of the goal or the importance of the relationship. – and there are very different styles, depending upon the position that people take.

While a full exploration of the model is beyond the brief of this blog, I encourage you to investigate it further if you are seeking more in-depth ways to manage conflict. For now, I would simply encourage you to think about your own preferred style, and those of your teammates. What happened the last time something blew up in your team? Did everyone avoid talking about it? Was there one person that was determined to “win” at all costs – no matter the impact on relationships within the group?

It is also informative to think about the personalities within the team, and how these contribute. Referring to the Big Five Personality traits, it’s easy to see that those with a tendency towards high agreeableness may lead them to preserve the relationship and more easily let go of their own needs, or those of the group goal. I believe that to achieve compromise, to accommodate each other or to collaborate, strength within the team is needed, calling for trust and cohesion. If we enjoy good, trusting relationships, know each other well, support each other and share common goals we are more likely to move away from entrenched positions in order to resolve conflict and find a productive solution.

Another important aspect here is the role of the manager or supervisor, and the psychological climate that the team operates within. If there is a blame culture within the team (or indeed if this is an aspect of the organisational culture), people seek to defend their positions, being mindful that ‘failure’ of any kind isn’t acceptable. Conflict is thus more likely to encourage competition or avoidance, because it isn’t possible to have open or explicit discussions about the issue in order to address it. By contrast, if people are encouraged to take judicious risks, learn from mistakes and continue to grow and develop through experimentation, it is more likely that people will feel psychologically safe to operate and speak openly. Providing coaching and mentoring also reinforces the importance of personal development and helps people feel valued.

There is evidence that teams working face to face are more likely to opt for constructive responses to conflict, with virtual teams turning to more passive or aggressive styles more readily – perhaps due to the feeling of comfort that physical distance conveys when we don’t have to look the other person right in the eye or continue feeling physically uncomfortable in their present during a conflict exchange. As we know, on social media platforms, people feel empowered to write things they would never say in person, and while much “keyboard warrior” behaviour is aimed at strangers, I think that if people within a team don’t know each other well, there could be a tendency to reach for these more aggressive styles, particularly if they feel backed into a corner.

Clearly not all conflict is detrimental to team or employee performance. Being able to debate and explore different viewpoints, experiences and ideas should lead to growth, development and better outcomes through an open and inclusive approach – but only when members are prepared and able to work collaboratively and supportively.

Using teamwork training to address how we manage conflict

In addressing team performance, two different types of training have been extensively researched. Activities carried out by teams can be broadly categorised as “task work” (what the team is doing) and “teamwork” (how they are doing it together). Task work refers to the technical competencies, whereas teamwork refers to the behaviours and processes that a team uses to get the work done. Activities that strengthen teamwork, regulating their performance and keeping them cohesive are therefore highly desirable.

Teamwork interventions essentially seek to help team performance (how the team prepares for, executes and reflects on what they are doing) and how they maintain their relationships (which refers more to interpersonal aspects of the group).

Types of Teamwork training fall within 4 categories (McEwan, 2017)[iii] :

  1. Educating team members on the importance of social support and managing interpersonal conflict (delivered via classroom training)
  2. Workshops designed to enable the team to discuss their purpose and goals or working through case studies to address issues or problems
  3. Simulation training which can focus on both taskwork and teamwork to model desired processes and behaviours
  4. Team reviews which enable an ongoing review of the quality of teamwork as it unfolds (like guided reflection).

“Teamwork training focused on improving social support and conflict management may improve the functioning of a team, which in turn improves the team’s performance.”

(McEwan, 2017)

Research has shown that teamwork training is highly effective in fostering teamwork and team performance. This holds true for many different types of teams, different situations and different methods. Most effective are interventions that involve activities that are experiential in nature, as this allows people to learn and practice different approaches – enabling growth and development of how they work as a team. If there are issues relating to how well people support each other and handle conflict, team members may withhold their contribution to the team’s effort (i.e. not freely sharing information or skills). The key to an inclusive team is that everyone feels safe and able to contribute their best ideas in the certain knowledge that they won’t be criticised and that they will be valued and listened to.

If teams can actively learn together, this not only provides a valuable roadmap for how they may tackle tasks, activities and indeed conflict in the future. This is done in a non-critical, developmental way, where people can make mistakes, experiment and practice, as opposed classroom-based activity, which is essentially passive. Doing this virtually also helps to simulate the lived experience of what it’s like to collaborate, negotiate, persuade and yes, to clash over different aspects of the team’s work.

Things teams can do

There are many options for creating effective teamwork training / interventions. McEwan’s and Martinez-Moreno’s research has confirmed that team self-guided training can be highly effective. The team come together to address a specific performance issue, where they are responsible for solving the problem with the support of an instructor / facilitator provides appropriate guidance and feedback during the process. An important aspect of this, particularly for virtual teams, is the use of feedback from the team members themselves, who are encouraged to reflect on how things have worked in the past, before moving on to finding a new way to operate. This is designed to encourage employee engagement, to create a shared understanding and to increase the level of effort given to the task by the group members.

Having discussed and taken everyone’s ideas and feedback on board, members are then encouraged to individually identify potential solutions before discussing and evaluating these as a group. By working in this way, virtual teams in the research found it easier to handle conflict constructively rather than either avoiding or trying to dominate the situation. By providing space for dialogue and a greater understanding of others’ views, ideas and perspectives (listen to understand, don’t listen to reply), not only is the search for solutions less combative, but there is increased understanding about needs, roles and responsibilities within the team.

One activity AWA uses for clients is to help teams draw up a Working Together Agreement (WTA). This agreement is suitable for both virtual and co-located teams, because everyone needs clarity and focus to guide working relationships. Teams are encouraged to identify the things that help them to be at their most effective, both as individuals and collectively. They discuss the aspects that are already in place, and those that aren’t (as well as things that are present that really shouldn’t be!). Through a gradual process of sharing, explaining and prioritising, the team establishes “rules” to guide behaviour and help them function effectively. By including conflict within this agreement, the team can establish a framework for how they will identify and address conflict in the future.

By running a workshop to create a WTA, the team will already be modelling teamwork training, and strengthening their relationship, understanding of each other and their cohesion. Once the WTA is drawn up and agreed, it can provide guidance for the future, including the resolution of conflict. It is therefore a win-win tool for teams.

In conclusion

There are many opportunities to strengthen team relationships – indeed any collaborative effort should help to reinforce team performance, particularly if the team has this in mind when undertaking the activity.

Continuing to focus on trust, cohesion and relationship maintenance is critical. The arrival of a new team member (or the departure of someone) could disrupt the harmony of the group – so inducting people into the team’s approach, or regrouping after the departure of a teammate, is also worthy of consideration.

And finally, if conflict becomes disruptive, that’s probably a good indication that the team’s approach is due for an overhaul.

[i] Martínez-Moreno, E., Zornoza, A., Orengo, V., & Thompson, L. F. (2014). The effects of team self-guided training on conflict management in virtual teams. Group Decision and Negotiation, 24(5), 905-923. Delise, L. A., Allen Gorman, C., Brooks, A. M., Rentsch, J. R., & Steele-Johnson, D. (2010). The effects of team training on team outcomes: A meta-analysis. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 22(4), 53-80.

[ii] Pruitt DG, Rubin JZ (1986) Social conflict: escalation, stalemate, and settlement. Random House, New York

[iii] McEwan D, Ruissen GR, Eys MA, Zumbo BD, Beauchamp MR (2017) The Effectiveness of Teamwork Training on Teamwork Behaviors and Team Performance: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Controlled Interventions. PLoS ONE 12(1): e0169604. doi:10.1371/journal. pone.0169604