How to Lead Through Conflict in Virtual Teams

Conflict among team members is inevitable, especially when your team is working remotely. What makes remote teams more susceptible to this is the absence of non-verbal cues. 

This is made clear by how much of our communication is conveyed through spoken word, tone of voice, and body language.

According to Dr. Albert Mehrabian “. . . 7% of meaning is communicated through spoken word, 38% through tone of voice, and 55% through body language. . .”  (MasterClass, 2020). 

That means that during remote correspondence the majority of your communication is removed. 

By removing tone of voice and/or body language it makes it much easier for miscommunications to occur which tends to be the spark of flaming conflict.  

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When conflict is left unresolved severe consequences can result. This is why conflict management is a critical skill for every leader and employee. 

Check it out on YouTube: How to Manage Conflict in Virtual Teams in 7 Easy Steps

Effective conflict management is no easy task, especially when done remotely.

That’s why I’ve laid out some top kept HR secrets to help you and your team.  

In this article I discuss the following topics:

1. Why conflict is actually helpful for your team. 😲

When you see conflict as discussion rather than an argument your team’s productivity begins to sky rocket.  

2. How you can create productive conflict in the virtual workplace. 💻

When you create a set of guiding principles around how to handle conflict you’re creating the perfect platform for productive discussion. 

3. Four guiding methods to establishing conflict principles. 🤓

 By establishing principles about how you and your team should address conflict you’re establishing the framework for a workplace culture of productive conflict. 

4. Eight simple rules you can implement to help manage conflict in your remote team. 👍

These eight simple rules are effective in any remote team and can easily be customized to fit the unique needs of your own team. 

The Importance of Conflict for a Productive Workplace Culture

It’s important to understand conflict shouldn’t be avoided all together. Conflict is bound to happen, and truth be told, it’s a completely normal human interaction. 

Properly handled conflict can strengthen the workings of a team as it creates a chance to understand a new perspective which is essential for innovative development. 

When you and your team see conflict as a tool to exchange ideas while allowing each party to be equally heard, it becomes a productive discussion rather than a fearful argument.  

Productive conflict creates an opportunity for progress and growth. Not only does it allow us to learn more about our teammates as individuals, it leads to improved working relationships, increased job satisfaction, and better employee retention rate. 

Productive conflict is an essential piece of the puzzle when it comes to creating a robust and productive workplace culture (remote or not). 

When you and your team see conflict as a tool to exchange ideas while allowing each party to be equally heard, it becomes a productive discussion rather than a fearful argument.  

To read more about the importance of conflict in the workplace check out this blog: The 10 Benefits of Conflict.

How You can Increase Productive Conflict in the Virtual Workplace

The best way to ensure conflict stays productive is by defining what it means and creating a clear set of guidelines. 

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Since conflict is considered a natural human interaction, nobody talks about it. This means that no one truly understands how to properly address conflict and everyone has different assumptions surrounding it. 

As a result, we all have different ways that we have learned to deal with conflict which creates a hotbed for hostility. To top this off, due to a decrease in our communication capabilities in the remote world, when a team becomes remote the likelihood of hostile conflict increases 10 fold. 

This means that creating a set of principles to guide conflict in the remote workplace is essential for the creation of productive discussion. By creating a set of principles you and your team are establishing rules of conduct surrounding conflict. 

Creating a set of principles to guide conflict in the remote workplace is essential for the creation of productive discussion.

Through the creation of these conflict guidelines you're giving your team a sense of common ground to work on. In creating a set of shared assumptions you’re providing a safe space for individuals to interact in because they now have a frame of reference to understand each other’s reactions.  

The creation of conflict guidelines is also an important team building activity as it helps to strengthen bonds among team members which increases their sense of belonging and psychological safety. Learn this with conflict management training.

To read more about the importance of fostering belongingness and psychological safety on your startup team read my blog, The Undeniable Secret to Peak Team Performance.

4 Guiding Methods To Establish Your Remote Team’s Conflict Guidelines

Now that you understand the role and importance of conflict in workplace interaction you must work towards implementing it into the online workplace. Below I provide you with four easy steps to establish conflict principles in your remote team. 

1. Schedule an online meeting with everyone on the team. 

Set aside an hour or two for the meeting. Although it may seem like a lot of time, it is important that all team members contribute to the discussion. 

2. Use an application like Miro during the brainstorm to keep track of your ideas. 

Miro is a software made for team collaboration. It is a very agile software that allows you to use sprint planning, huddle boards, sticky notes, word webs and more and oh, did I mention it’s free. 

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3. Convert agreed upon rules into a formal document everyone to access. 

This becomes the universal guidelines on how to deal with conflict among team members. Ask everyone to everyone sign it and agree they understand how to deal with conflict amongst the team. 

4. Walk through an example scenario and clarify any questions/concerns.

Discuss a scenario to help members easily retain what was agreed upon and discussed. It’ll show them how to successfully implement this tool in their day-to-day interactions and will also help to clear up any questions or concerns they might have. 

8 Simple Rules To Manage Conflict When Working Remotely

The set of rules you establish to deal with conflict in your workplace is up to you and your team. But to make things a little easier, I have provided some simple suggestions tailored to online conflict management to get you started: 

1. Encourage questions. ❔❔❔

One of the most common reasons conflict occurs is because of miscommunication which is especially true in an online workplace (as discussed above).

The best way to avoid miscommunication is through clarification. 

Encourage your teammates to ask questions of each other so that they have a clear understanding of the task at hand, this will help to avoid small miscommunications that may occur causing unwarranted disagreements. 

2. Don’t downplay minor issues. 🙅

Show employees that it’s important to not let small things fester. 

Remind them that when they try to brush off small problems that they’re actually creating the perfect storm. As we all know, when you stuff a closet eventually it all comes piling out at once. 

When working remotely it can be easy to let little things slide because it feels like bringing them up gets in the way of productivity, but the opposite is actually true.

Resentment builds over time if issues are left unaddressed. Be sure to check in with your team members from time to time. Show them care,compassion, and that you are there for support if they need it. 

3. Remind your team to assume the best of each other. 😀

Another common cause of conflict is misinterpretation. What some might see as a bubbly and upbeat message, others may see as bitter and sassy. 

Explain to team members that digital communication requires more attention and sensitivity to ensure that messages are clearly interpreted by others. 

If one assumes that every message is a threat or an attack on their personal character, conflict will naturally become commonplace. 

Remind your teammates to assume the best of each other, especially in our new virtual reality. 

When sending messages remotely it’s easy to misinterpret their intention and tone, but when we take a step back to gain some perspective more often than not the intent of the sender is a tone of positivity and innocence. 

4. Set-up a meeting. 💻

Instead of messaging back and forth, creating even more confusion or miscommunication, set up a video-call. 

This allows for face-to-face discussion which will make it easier to discuss the issue at hand as it will allow individuals to clearly communicate what they need from each other to solve the problem at hand. 

5. Start with the problem and focus on the facts. 📊

When discussing disagreements encourage team members to set aside time to present the facts to each other and identify the problem that’s being faced. 

In the remote workplace, this could take the form of a collaborative google document, or a video-call discussion.

This will help figure out what the root of the conflict is and why it is happening in the first place. 

Remind members not to take issues personally. You are all in this together against the problem, not each other

6. Identify an end goal. 🎯

Identify what issue you want to solve and what team members need from each other to find a solution. 

Figure out what the benefit of solving this problem is and what each team member gets out of finding its solution. 

7. Create a ‘contract.’ 📝

Once common ground is found and an agreement is reached, have team members send each other an email with the agreed upon terms. 

By sending the agreement by email everyone has easy access to it in case it’s needed for future reference. 

8. Follow-up. ✔️

A few days later, follow up with the team members who had the disagreement. 

Make sure everyone is working towards carrying out the agreed upon terms and offer help wherever it is needed.

You can do this by email, video-call, or both.

From this article you have learned

👉 Productive conflict is important to your startup team as it creates opportunities for innovation and growth. 

👉 To establish a culture of productive conflict you must first create conflict principles. 

👉 Conflict principles are established in four steps: 

  1. Scheduling a video-call meeting with the entire team.
  2. Using the meeting to host a collaborative brainstorming session. 
  3. Devising a formal contract from the meeting that everyone will sign. 
  4. Ending the meeting by walking through an example scenario. 

👉 Eight simple rules that you can implement on your own remote startup team.

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