Any time you have more than one person involved in anything there's the potential for conflict. When you're working remotely from the rest of your team, that potential is not only greater, but there are unique challenges involved.
On the latest Cranky Middle Manager Show, I interviews Yael Zofi, author of A Manager's Guide to Virtual Teams. Among many interesting topics, we discussed conflict in the virtual world and how it differs from traditional teams.
According to Yael, there are four types of conflict faced when you work remotely from each other and connected by technology:
Performance Conflict: "What am I supposed to do and how should I do it?" If people are unclear on what tasks they're supposed to complete and behaviors to exhibit (and to what quality or standard) it's easy for there to be misunderstandings and conflict.
Identity Conflict: "Where do I belong?" A common problem with virtual teams is that reporting structures can be all mixed up. You can be a member of one project team but answer to another boss with another set of marching orders. Leaders need to know potential conflicts for every member of their team (oh yeah, and themselves, too).†
Data Conflict: "What should I focus on first"? Think of the myriad ways that communication can get balled up. Maybe you've missed a version update on that document. Perhaps you didn't get the memo on which activity is the "priority du jour". Too much information coming at you can very easily become overwhelming. The same is true for your people.
Social Conflict: "Who are the people and personalities on my team?" Finally, there are good old fashioned personality conflicts. Is that person not responding because they didn't get the email or are they just ignoring me? Does she request all the data because she's micromanaging me or are they just more of a detail person than I am?
If you don't get to know each other, it's difficult to avoid misunderstandings. And what do you do when the inevitable misunderstandings arise?
In "A Manager's Guide to Virtual Teams" Zofi has great tips including:†
Prepare employees for conflict; invest in training so that people will be willing and able to take ownership of their personal situations
Schedule one-on-ones regularly to invite feedback and monitor the relationships
Communicate about the conflict. Don't hold it in or be afraid to speak up.
Take care not to confront someone in public (and public means where everyone can see and hear so conference calls and blog posts qualify).
Pick your battles carefully. Don't let urgency or time pressure force you into giving an emotional response that might have long-reaching consequences.
You can hear the full interview with Yael Zofi on The Cranky Middle Manager Show # 303 here.