How to Lead Through Conflict in Virtual Teams

Best Practices for Conflict Resolution in the Workplace

Virtual and remote teams are the way forward. More companies than ever — from agile startups to multinational corporates — are working with remote and virtual teams. Employees and contractors love them. Numerous studies show they’re positive for productivity and company culture.

However, many companies are still struggling to keep up with the needs of modern virtual employees and teams. Although more businesses than ever are happy to let workers go remote, widening the talent pool a company can access, there is not enough support in place for virtual teams.

According to a recent Upwork study, “63 percent of companies have remote workers but more than half — 57 percent — lack the policies to support them.” Handling conflict resolution — a problem in every office — is something that there is not enough support and policies in place to help HR managers cope with conflict resolution in a virtual team.

Leadership in virtual teams

As a leader — whether you are a co-founder or manager — looking after remote and virtual teams, there needs to be more noticeable leadership than if a team were in the same office. Remote staff may have different needs. One of the most important comes down to communication. If you, or they, aren’t good at communicating, then the management of a remote team is going to breakdown.

@hvranic — Unsplash

Unlike teams working in the same office, the amount of asynchronous communication in remote teams can seem excessive. But without synchronization, team members won’t bond, won’t have a clear view of the context, the vision and nor will they buy-into the ultimate goals of any project. Communication can’t be an afterthought and it needs to be done in-line with the needs and timezones of those in the team.

For remote teams, it is equally helpful to give them as much behind-the-scenes context as possible. Everything that they would ordinarily get if people were in the same office should be accessible to those who are working remotely.

Conflict is something that can’t be avoided, even when a team isn’t working in the same office.

As a manager, your role is to manage — not avoid — conflict within remote teams.  

When conflict isn’t managed effectively, it can lead to lower morale, lower productivity and damage to projects. As Kevin M. Campbell, Accenture’s Group Chief Executive, Technology, notes in the Harvard Business Review, “All too often, I’ve seen that personal conflicts derail costly projects and important initiatives.

In almost every group dynamic, task-related conflicts can and will happen.

You need to ensure they stay on-topic, avoid getting personal, and are managed effectively to avoid derailing a project, upsetting other stakeholders, including customers, and to keep the team together. Some of the challenges of conflict management in remote teams include:

  • A loss of context. Unless everything has been written down, there is going to be a conversation where there has been a misunderstanding, or whereby two or more people have been unable to align around the same point of view.
  • An inability to control the situation. Due to time zone differences and other workload pressures or complications, you can’t always resolve a situation quickly, in the same room.
  • Misunderstandings, assumptions and mutual distrust. Altogether, they can make a situation worse.

Let’s look at what you can do to improve the situation as the manager responsible for remote teams.

How managers can master remote leadership

Whether or not your team is remote, or partly remote, there are three deadly sins that are causing immeasurable damage to leaders and remote teams they’re responsible for.

#1: Arrogance

As a manager, you probably know more about certain things than other members of your team. Depending on how many years of experience you have, there are going to be certain skills you’re more proficient at. But this doesn’t mean you know everything, and assuming that is one of the worst things you can do if you want a conflict resolving.

#2: Assuming only you can solve the problem

Even if a manager causes the problem, too many — incorrectly — assume that only they can fix it. Trusting team members to come up with a solution is seen as something that goes against the natural order of how a team should operate.

@rawpixel — Unsplash

Again, this is one of the worst things a manager can do and it could lead to team members looking for opportunities elsewhere.

#3: Inflexibility

As much as you may dislike the notion, your way is not the only way.

An inflexible management position — especially if management policies have caused or made a situation worse — will only deepen the conflict and potentially cause team members to start looking for new jobs.

Conflict resolution is about listening and finding the best way forward for everyone. You can’t do that when assuming your position and point-of-view is the only way forward.  

Sticking to any of these three deadly sins is going to cause trouble when managing remote teams. Instead, you need to manage with more openness, transparency, a willingness to communicate and compromise.

Listening to team members and embracing the solutions of others is an essential part of how managers can resolve conflicts and build culture in remote teams.

How to manage meetings and calls effectively

Meetings are an essential part of managing a remote team. In many cases, they’re more important than when managing a team in the same office. Leading a good meeting is hard. Leading a good virtual meeting is even harder.

Before you kick-off a meeting — especially when there has been an internal conflict — you need to make sure you’ve got the right tech and communication tools to support the meeting, wherever your team is.

@lonely_planet — Unsplash

Another thing to make sure is to get as many of the team on-board as possible. For this reason, you should prepare a few days in advance so that everyone is online at the same time.

Before the meeting, put out an agenda. Engage everyone on the call. Ask people to say they’re on the call, so there isn’t any awkward confusion other who’s present and who’s not.

Do your best to make the team observe positive call etiquette, otherwise, you might risk finding yourself on another conference call from hell — which won’t help you or your team, and it certainly won’t resolve any conflicts.

Now, as a manager, there are always ways to resolve conflicts and get a team operating effectively again. Let’s look at ways you can do this, even when you’ve got team members spread as far away as Boston and the beaches of Bali.

How remote teams can conquer conflict

To begin with, there are three tried-and-tested C’s of conflict management that every manager of remote teams should implement.

#1: Communication

Communication is the first step you should take when trying to resolve a conflict.
Find out what has happened, why, and make sure to get both sides of the story. Find out what you can do that will bring about a resolution. Find out what a resolution looks like, what every party wants to achieve and look at the most effective ways to bring this problem to a swift resolution and conclusion.

#2: Consistency

Always make sure your approach to conflict resolution is consistent. If this isn’t, then your team can’t look to you for leadership and guidance. Especially if there are friendships and personal feelings that are impacting how you resolve a conflict.

You can’t play favourites with teammates. Treat everyone with the same level of respect.
Listen to everyone before proposing a solution, and don’t always assume that your solution is the right one. Look for a suitable solution amongst others that your team is proposing; that way, everyone has been listened to, which is an important part of the challenge of managing a remote team. 

#3: Composure

Leaders need to lead. That means staying calm, even and especially in difficult situations.
If you can’t manage that, a team can quickly start to question why they’re entrusting the role of leading them to someone who struggles under pressure and can’t manage looking after a team.

Treat everyone with respect, even if others aren’t treating each other with respect during a difficult interpersonal situation.

Listen. Get everyone to stay calm. Work things out, using your “indoor voice”, instead of shouting and getting upset.

5 conflict management styles: which is yours?

Next, to dig into this a little deeper, consider which is the most effective conflict resolution style for your personality and those in your team:

#1: Accommodating

An accommodating style — and often one of the most effective leadership styles adopts the role of the ‘servant leader.’ You are leading and therefore serving others. Your job is to make sure everyone can work effectively, and that means resolving conflicts and making difficult situations easier for everyone.

Be an accommodating leader. Take everyone else’s views into consideration. Look for the most suitable solution for the conflict, which must accommodate the various viewpoints and whenever possible, find practical solutions for problems that have been brought up as part of this team conflict.

#2: Avoiding

An avoiding leadership style does its best to avoid any conflicts and personal problems within teams. As an avoiding leader, you will do everything you can to postpone and deflect the conflict.

In time, this doesn’t often prove effective as your team can’t operate properly when there is a conflict under the surface, and this can have a serious negative impact on the successful outcome of a project.

Avoiding rarely works, but it can make a conflict seem less important — including to those who are involved — and thereby, somehow, reducing the impact when the team does get together and discuss it.

#3: Compromising

A manager who takes the compromising approach will always try and find a solution that makes everyone happy. It may not completely solve the problem.

Sometimes this leads to more conflict and problems down the road, or the compromise effectively kicks the problem onto another manager, or further up the management hierarchy, or onto a client.

Whenever possible, make sure the compromise — even if not everyone loves it — resolves the problem as much as possible without it being accidentally made someone else’s’ responsibility, or simmering under the surface for it to be resolved by someone else.

#4: Collaborating

A collaborative solution is one whereby everyone feels they’ve achieved a win. Unlike a compromise solution, where everyone only feels like they’ve got part of what they wanted, this should satisfy the whole team.

A collaborative approach is ideal when multiple stakeholders need to be addressed and the working relationship is important enough that maintaining it is crucial for all parties, including those in remote teams.

#5: Competing

A competing style is not advisable in every, or even most situations. However, there might be some whereby the views of one group, or one individual — a manager or owner — needs to override that of a team. Or whereby there’s been an injustice and one person’s view needs to drive forward a new situation.

If you are going to take this approach, make sure the facts and law are on your side and you do your best to get senior management buy-in before attempting to resolve a conflict this way.

Over to you: Key takeaways

Conflict resolution is not easy. Especially when you can’t just get everyone in the same room and work everything out in the space of an hour or so. Now, when your team is remote, resolving conflict does take more time and work.

As an effective manager, you need to listen to everyone. Don’t show any bias or favoritism. Make sure to find out everyone’s point of view and as many facts to support what happened, or what went wrong and why people are unhappy with other team members.

Don’t postpone trying to find a resolution. Aim to speak to everyone individually, to find out what sort of resolution they want, and then, as soon as possible, get everyone on a call whereby they can discuss it calmly and resolve the problem.

Thinking about managing a virtual team? We at YouTeam will be happy to cherry-pick the best candidates for you.

Just drop us a line — our support team will handle all the rest.

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Written by
Mary Atamaniuk

Mary Atamaniuk is a digital content strategist, her areas of interest include digital marketing, tech entrepreneurship, and influencer blogging.

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