Conflict Resolution In Your Virtual Team: A Quick Guide [2021]

Conflict resolution

Teams – whether in-house or virtual – consist of people. Having people around means conflicts and disagreements are inevitable. That’s the capital T truth, and we have to face it. It could be something as silly as one of the employees taking someone else’s chair or creating a mess on a shared desk. Problems could be more severe. For example, an employee disrespecting another’s values and beliefs or bullying them. Conflict resolution in virtual teams is not a cakewalk but is most certainly a lot easier than in a brick and mortar office. 

Some managers adamantly conclude that managing conflict in virtual teams is impossible. Why? Because there is no face-to-face communication. This makes it easier for employees to misinterpret each other. Managers feel that finding a solution that pleases everyone will tear them apart.

I’ll tell you why I am in absolute agreement with them. I’ll also share with you tips that have proven to work in conflict resolution.

Virtual Teams Can Fix Problems Instantly

I know what you’re thinking – and no, I am not a mind-reader!

“If there is a problem, I can call for a meeting and discuss it. We’re in the same building – easy!”

Hold your horses! Scheduling a meeting can be a real struggle. You must consider the availability and workload of your employees. As a result, you will keep putting it off, and the subject of conflict festers, and eventually, over the course of a few days, it snowballs into something that is straight out of a disaster movie. There could be name-calling, extreme gossiping, cold vibes, the passive aggressive treatment and all the other toxic behaviours you can think of. Before you know it, the “trickle down” effect begins and this conflict that was between two people has somehow become a ten people war.

Those extra trips to the water cooler and those extra meetings in the conference room mean less work, more drama. Drama is interesting in movies but most definitely unwelcome in a professional setting. It is conducive to an unproductive environment that has a direct impact on your business. 

In complete contrast, a virtual setting allows  people to be more confident. They are more able to stand up for themselves and express their points. Psychologically speaking, the fear of judgement is negligible. Factually, everyone is miles apart from one another. The inhibition to face someone in flesh and blood does not exist which in turn boosts confidence to be able to express oneself better virtually. This also lessens the probability of the “trickle down” effect. No possibility of extra water cooler trips and excessive gossiping.

Don’t believe it? Let’s check in with the science of human psychology, shall we? The I-can-say-whatever-I-want-online phenomenon is known as The Online Disinhibition Effect in psychology. This fancy term means that people don’t obey social restrictions when online.

From the remote team manager’s POV, it means your employees will share their concerns more freely. This will make solving conflicts much easier. It’s time to take a look at some concrete steps that will assist you in clearing up the tension.

How to manage conflict in virtual teams

Step 1. – What’s The Problem, Though?

First things first. Understand what the problem is. Is it task related? Is it related to interpersonal skills? The nature of the problem will determine your approach towards conflict resolution. Get to the core of the issue. It is always important to ask and not assume. If you see some tension brewing between your designer and developer, ask both of them separately about what the issue is. Jumping to conclusions is not the sport you want to indulge in lest you want your business to get fractured. Knowing all the details will be very useful, especially during the second step – the reason.

Step 2. – Why Exactly Did That Happen?

Getting on a video chat with your designer and web-developer and asking them to just “get along” is not the solution. You have to find the root, get to it and chop it off in order to be successful with conflict resolution in virtual teams.

It could be anything from mere miscommunication to cultural differences.

As a manager, your task is to dive deep and find all of the reasons that led to this conflict. Unless you do this, you’re only hitting a dead end that halts all your efforts.

Step 3. – Listen To Both Sides

Work with each “side” at a time. If you make it a group discussion, there is a possibility of it turning into a fight. Annoyed people use “selective listening” in order to just hear the part where they are “right”.. Everything else will be ignored. Don’t expect empathy from either for the other. It is natural for them to be irate. That is why the conflict exists in the first place.

Gather as much information as you can until you can put yourself in their shoes.

Step 4. – The game is on

If we were in a Sherlock movie, “the game would be on,” Watson.

As Holmes would say, we have the problem, we know the reasons, so it’s time to get down to action.

Here, my tips get a little vague. Sorry! There are a hundred thousand possible problems and solutions. Discussing them one by one in an article would take a couple of lifetimes. Nonetheless, you have all the resources, tools, and information. Knowing this, making the right decision won’t ask for sleepless nights and all your energy.

You’ll have to play the “good cop” here. You have a huge advantage if you binge watch any series related to investigations and interrogations. Just saying! Be as diplomatic as possible. You don’t want either party to be disappointed with your judgment. This is not a courtroom and nobody is getting convicted.

Try to create a win-win situation by appealing to the team spirit if the solution you offer is in favor of one side over the other. Whenever possible, try to come up with a compromise by taking into account the needs of everyone involved.

Worst case scenario, you can always change the team and assign different partners. Bear in mind that if you’ve tried a couple of times and the problem persists, you need to change their teams. Sometimes, that really is the best solution for conflict resolution in virtual teams.

How about minimizing conflict in virtual teams?

Note that I didn’t say “avoid” because let’s admit, it’s hardly possible.

Leaders such as Joel Peterson, chairman of JetBlue Airways claim healthy and managed conflict can generate new ideas. This kind of conflict can also result in better workflow, and increase productivity.

The moral of the story is that you shouldn’t let conflict scare you. Learn to embrace it.

Focus on reducing small and unnecessary conflict. Some examples are misinterpreted messages, tasks or privacy issues. Here is how you do it:

  • Create an online discussion platform. All the team members should be a part of this. The team must have access to all the projects, dates, shared files, and updates related to their work. This way you can guarantee that everyone is on the same page. But for the sake of privacy, you can have subcategories. Setup channels and items that are accessible to everyone or only to a particular group.
  • Assign a mediator, someone who people can turn to when conflict arises. Rule of thumb: the sooner you solve it, the better. Letting the issue sit until you have the time to handle it is wrong. It could be the project manager, HR or a position created especially for that effect. Have someone dedicated to problem-solving who is ready to tackle them as they arise.
  • Online chats are crucial. And you need all kinds -, audio, video, and text. Virtual teams are susceptible to a lack of communication. The reasons are plentiful: time zone differences, language, not feeling the tone, culture – the list goes on. Video chat comes to the rescue. Face-to-face communication allows your employees to understand each other better.
  • Have some quality time with your virtual team. As we all know, you can do that virtually, too. If the team members bond, they’ll be able to solve their issues among themselves, and you won’t have to interfere.

You don’t have to be an expert to initiate conflict resolution in virtual teams. Keep an objective mindset. Take your time to evaluate the situation. When you’re ready, use all the leverage you can get to come up with a suitable solution.

Of course, you can avoid a good amount of conflict by hiring the right people. Real pros will create much less conflict. DistantJob can help with that! Contact us.

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Gayane Aghabalyan

Gayane Aghabalyan

Gayane Aghabalyan is a freelance writer who works with DistantJob to research and synthesise the best remote work related content into practical, accurate and actionable guides and articles on how to improve remote leadership and better manage your teams.