How to manage conflict in virtual teams (video transcript)

A lot of virtual teams get into trouble because people avoid giving feedback or having conflict with people that they don’t sit in the same office as.

I’ll let you in on a little secret: good healthy conflict and feedback is even more important in virtual and remote teams. I’m going to tell you how to prepare for and deliver feedback to somebody who you don’t work face to face with.

I’m a big believer in working through conflicts right as they start so that you don’t get into what I call conflict debt. Conflict debt stalls your team, and creates all sorts of unnecessary friction in your relationships so it’s a really problematic issue.

But it’s even more of a problem on remote teams because we’re not face to face with one another and it’s a lot harder to raise those issues.

Here I’ll give you the steps to prepare for, execute, and follow up on a great uncomfortable conversation with somebody who’s in another office.

The challenges of a virtual team

Okay, it’s definitely true. There are some challenges that make conflict much harder with a virtual team.

So first of all, on a virtual team, you don’t have those sort of casual informal collisions at the photocopier or the coffee machine. When you don’t have those, it’s a lot harder to build a relationship but it’s also a lot harder to know if something’s going off the rails. So that’s certainly a challenge.

Second, when you do have to confront or deal with an uncomfortable discussion, it’s probably over video conferencing at best and at worst over email. Yet we all know how bad email is for having uncomfortable conversations. So that does make it hard to have conflict well on teams.

Third, it’s really easy to put off conflict when you’re on a virtual team. If you’re not bumping into somebody getting the stink eye all day or having to sit eye to eye across from them in a meeting room, well it’s a lot easier to just say, “ugh, I’ll deal with it later”. You don’t have the intensity of bumping into someone to encourage you to work it through.

Finally, if you occasionally see people face to face it might give you the excuse that you want to wait until you see them. That means conflict on virtual teams can often be really untimely. It’s really delayed from when things actually went wrong which can cause it to balloon into a bigger deal than it really is.

So it’s true. There are a few things that make conflict on a virtual team a little bit more difficult but that’s no reason not to confront these issues head on. As soon as you get the sense that something is starting to bother you that niggly feeling of “mm, I didn’t like how that went in that conference call”, or “you know that person’s emails are making me crazy”, whatever it is, that’s the time to get on it.

Taking a proactive approach to conflict

Maybe you don’t like how someone is approaching their work or a project. If you let it go, it’s possible that that misalignment could grow bigger and bigger. Or maybe it’s something in your interpersonal relationship or how they’re behaving that’s driving you nuts.

It’s really important to address that otherwise you’re going to start seeing everything they do as annoying. Unfortunately, that’s how our brains work. Once we’ve decided someone’s annoying we only pay attention to the annoying things they do. We even interpret things that would be totally normal if anybody else had done it as “can you believe that?” So it’s really important that you get on top of the issue right away.

Step 1: Prepare in advance

The first thing you need to do is to prepare what you’re going to say. I’ve talked about some of the disadvantages of having conflict in a virtual team but here’s a big advantage.

When conflict comes up on a team where you’re all co-located, sometimes it just blows up out of nowhere. Maybe you’re in a meeting room together and you’ve finally had  enough and you roll your eyes and everybody sees it and woof, before you know it you’re into a pitched battle.

When that happens, you have no time to prepare, it gets really emotional and it’s quite likely that the whole thing goes down in a big hurry.

The advantage of a conflict with a virtual teammate is you have time to think about it. “What am I actually worried about? What’s bugging me? You know, I’m gonna listen in a couple more conference calls and think about what are some of the examples I could provide so that when I share the issue with the person I’ve got a lot more to go on.”

The other thing you can do is pause and ask for a couple other people’s opinions. “I really perceived Frank in that call as being way too focused on the finance perspective. How did you see it?”

All those things are possible in a situation where you can have advanced notice and prepare.

So that’s step one, prepare for the conversation in advance, make sure you’ve collected some evidence and got a little bit of perspective on it.

Step 2: Give them some warning

Step two is that it’s really important to give the other person a bit of a heads up that you want to have an uncomfortable conversation. I know that that’s counterintuitive and a lot of people don’t think about it that way but if you’re in an office with somebody and you’re starting to get frustrated, there will be a lot of subtle cues that you’re not so happy.

Probably you’re making a little bit less eye contact with them or your body language is a little different. We even can tell how someone’s feeling because their voice changes. When you smile, it lifts your soft palette and your voice feels differently. So people can pick up on if you’re frustrated or angry with them.

But if you’re communicating by email they’re not going to pick up on that at all. You just phoning them and starting to tell them everything they’ve done wrong is really going come out of nowhere and that’s a bit of a gotcha scenario. Gotcha scenarios don’t tend to lead to productive conflict.

If something’s going wrong, it’s really important to give them a heads up. Something simple, just an email that says “I’m worried about how our weekly priority setting is going. I’ve sent a meeting invite to have a real discussion about this”. That’s just enough that they actually have the chance then to think how do I feel about the weekly prioritization process? How do I collect my own evidence?

That’s going to make it more of a dialogue, a place where the two of you are coming together to figure it out versus if you don’t give them the heads up, you’ve had all this time to prepare your wonderful cogent arguments and they’re getting it sprung on them out of nowhere.

So it’s really important in a virtual team conflict situation that you give a bit of a heads up so they can prepare as well.

Step 3: Communicate as much as possible

The third thing that’s really important is to use the best communication technology you have available to you. If your company is one that has that awesome holographic telepresence meeting room thing, awesome, book it because the more body language you get the better.

If you don’t have that yet, then if you use Zoom, go for it. Zoom is great to at least get some of the body language. And if all you have is the phone, then it’s okay but you’re going to have to add a running commentary. Something like, “sorry I know I was quiet for a moment there. I just noticed that I’m getting really frustrated and I’m trying to say this in a way that’s fair”.

The more of the body language you have, the more ability you have to show, “look, I want to have this conversation productively”. When you only have the phone then it’s really not a great situation and you’re going to have to add some of that information in with the running dialogue. It’s like subtitles for a healthy fight.

If all you’ve got is email, then you should wait. If somebody’s traveling, or in the car, or in a place where you can only use email with them, that’s not a good place to have conflict or to deliver uncomfortable feedback. Really it’s not worth it.

Step 4: Have a cheat sheet

So number four, have a cheat sheet.

Do yourself a favor. Again, here’s another huge advantage of conflict over the computer. You can have a cheat sheet in front of you. Do whatever works for you. If you just need a big sign that just says, breathe, sure use that.

Or if you want to have the four points that it’s really important that you address, or maybe you’ve worked really hard to come up with a way of making your feedback really objective and taking out all the drama and the judgment. Great, put the actual wording there so you can glance down at it.

The other huge advantage of video conferencing technology is you can actually see your own face. It’s right there in your peripheral vision, and it’s very useful when you catch the expression on your face that says “Uh oh, I am not looking open to hearing their point of view”.

So it’s another big advantage over being in a meeting room, where we often don’t have those reflective surfaces to give us the clue that, “oh I’m looking a little aggressive”. On video conference we have it right there. That window is very, very useful.

So no matter what use the best communication technology you have and then use cheat sheets, use tools, make it a little easier on yourself.

Step 5: Have a discussion

Step five, work through the discussion. Whether it’s feedback, or you want to disagree with them about something. That’s the part that actually is exactly the same regardless of whether you’re face to face or over a telephone line 3,000 miles away, doesn’t matter. But there are some rules for how to do that really, really well.

Step 6: Follow up

Okay, so the sixth, really important, step is to actually follow up. When you’re in the same office as somebody you get all those ways of finding “out is this working? Are we getting better?” Eventually eye contact will start to return.

When you’re in a fight with someone, it’s very common that you’ll lose eye contact with one another, you’ll pass without looking or in a meeting you’ll keep all your eye contact for other people. So as things start to get better, you can judge that based on, “oh, we’re actually looking at each other now. Well, okay, it’s getting better”. Maybe you also start to force a smile as you walk by.

\Whatever it is, when you’re in an office, you start to get that real time feedback that, “okay, we’re going in the right direction”. You don’t get that when you’re with a remote teammate. So you have to bring it in.

You can certainly schedule official follow ups, that’s really important, but there’s also informal chances. When you do these follow ups, particularly if it’s been uncomfortable, I encourage you to keep it really short and sweet. At the end of the actual call, when you decide on, “okay, here’s the three things we’re gonna work on”. You want to have a really quick, possibly even a one word thing to describe it.

Then what you can do is have an email that’s something as simple as the first word planning and an emoji or something, the thumbs up, but follow up you may do thumbs down or sad face, or if it’s really not made any progress you might do that crying emoji.

It’s much better in conflict to have very, very quick follow ups to say, “hey, we’re on the right track here” or “okay, this one needs more work”. Those little emails can be really useful.

But it’s just as important for your follow up to be about the relationship stuff. If you’re in the office and you’ve just had a big fight with somebody, maybe a couple days later you’re finally like, “hey, how about that weather?” And that’s the way that you signal we’re trying to go back to normal. So, you need that, “hey, how about the weather” example for your remote team worker? Maybe that’s sending a clipping or an interesting article or maybe it’s your favorite cat video from YouTube.

But whatever it is, you need a few of those informal things that say, “I think we’re on the right track here”. So that’s step six.

Make sure that you find places to close the loop because it’s not as easy in a virtual team. You don’t know did we actually do what we said we were gonna do? Is it working? Are things getting better?

Step 7: Invest in the relationship to prevent future conflicts

The final step is to make sure that you are then building the relationship before another conflict arises.

Unfortunately, we tend to work on this ‘no news is good news line’, and that is the worst, worst rule to follow when it comes to virtual teams. Because if no news is good news, then it means the only time you’re hearing from your teammate is when they’re mad at you or things have hit the fan. That’s not what we want. Suddenly, whenever they see your number on the call display, they’re like, “I think I have to go”.

It’s really important that you start to shift the balance so there’s more and more conversations you’re having that are about positive, constructive, forward looking things and fewer and fewer that are about things that have gone wrong. And so then when something does go wrong, because you’ve invested in the relationship, it’s okay and you give each other the benefit of the doubt.

So here’s the question of the day: What conflict do you need to work through with a remote teammate to make things better in your relationship?

More on this

How to Manage Conflict in Virtual Teams

Virtual teams and how to give feedback from afar

Prevent Slack and MS Teams From Overwhelming Your Team