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How To Manage Conflict In A Virtual Team

I am working with a new virtual team who want to actively experience conflict/tension/frustration within the team. They want to explore how they individually and collectively handle conflict, and they want to do this at their next team building away day so that should conflict ever arise in the team they know how they will respond and will already have ideas and solutions for actively and positively handling it before it becomes a problem. So I am looking for ideas for scenarios I can run in a safe environment.

The Team Doc Says…

Congratulations for recognizing that team conflict will occur at some point in time for your team. Identifying business scenarios where this might happen is a good approach, but realize that you may not be able to address every situation. Team members can learn from what they have done in the past. To create your business scenarios for your team building day, have each team member contribute one example of conflict they have been involved in in past team activities.

Conflict is a fact of life when people work together, and conflict typically emerges because people don't see everything the same way. This difference in individuals' point of view, when managed properly, can be a source of power for team because it represents a broader perspective and more possibilities for creative problem solutions. However, it takes an enlightened team to work through conflict in a productive way.

How Conflict Affects Team Performance

Conflict can have negative effects on a team when the conflict is repressed or avoided. These effects include:

  • Dividing the team into factions
  • Wasting valuable time
  • Distracting team members from important priorities
  • Damaging the way the team is perceived by other teams, customers, stakeholders
  • Creating defensiveness
  • Hampering information flow
  • Blaming
  • Refusing to collaborate or cooperate

Develop Team Guidelines for Addressing Conflict Situations

It is essential your team reach agreement on some guidelines for addressing conflict situations. These guidelines fall in three categories:

  1. Determining when the team needs to get involved.
  2. Determining how to get involved.
  3. Determining a specific process for resolving conflict.

Teams should not try to assume responsibility for resolving all conflicts which occur among team members. When two team members experience a one-on-one conflict, they should be encouraged to resolve that conflict between themselves. This should be the primary approach for one-on-one conflicts, and in most cases, this should resolve the situation.

So what circumstances would make it advisable for the team to get involved in addressing a specific conflict situation?

  • When the conflict affects the performance of other team members
  • When the conflict jeopardizes achievement of team goals
  • When the conflict interferes with team communication.
  • When the conflict overflows external to the team.
  • When the conflict has gone on for some time, involves some repetitive pattern, shows no signs of improvement.

Follow A Step-By-Step Process

The key to resolving conflict effectively is to have a process for each team member to follow. One of the main ground rules for effective conflict resolution is to keep emotion out of the discussion as much as possible. Here is a five step process each team member can use to work through the conflict.

Step 1: Describe the conflict in neutral terms. What exactly is the issue? Describe it without including any inferences or assumptions.

Step 2: Identify critical needs and concerns. Identify what each team member needs to resolve the conflict. List any concerns.

Step 3: Develop alternatives to resolving the conflict. Through discussion and active listening, brainstorm possible alternatives all members can live with.

Step 4: Evaluate solutions to determine a win-win outcome(s). Using the items identified in Step 3, evaluate those that will have a win-win solution for each team member.

Step 5: Establish an action plan to implement solution(s). Put it into action! The conflict will continue until action is taken to create a different outcome.

What do you think? Do you have other suggestions for resolving team conflict? Leave me a comment.

About Denise O'Berry

Denise O'Berry is President of The Small Business Edge Corp, a small business consulting firm. A small business owner since 1996, Denise understands the challenges facing small business. She's lived them herself and helped hundreds of clients work through the frustrations, fears, and joys of owning a small business. Denise is the author of Small Business Cash Flow: Strategies for Making Your Business a Financial Success, a practical guide about keeping the cash in your business - where it belongs. Find more resources and tips at deniseoberry.com and askteamdoc.com