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How to Resolve Conflict in Remote Teams

by: Shiv Sharma
How to Resolve Conflict in Remote Teams

There is a thin line between conflict aversion and conflict management. And it shrinks even further in remote teams. 

Conflicts (remote or otherwise) can be healthy for any team if managed well. They infuse new ideas and encourage people to challenge their views. Healthy conflicts are also a sign of an open team culture where people share their thoughts without inhibitions. 

Conflict aversion is a sign of stagnant teams. It leads to teams compromising on excellence for the sake of harmony. Such teams struggle to achieve extraordinary results. 

Remote teams have a higher tendency for conflict aversion because remote conflicts are harder to resolve. Why? Because of two reasons:

  • Online disinhibition – 

Psychologists believe that people feel a lack of restraint when communicating online compared to in-person communication. Its worst form can be seen in online trolling and cyberbullying. Even in a work environment, online communication causes an empathy deficit. It’s easier for us to be more forthright in emails and text messages. That’s why a lot of people use emails for difficult communication. Occasionally, such communication might sow the seeds for conflict. 

  • Loss of behavioral signals – 

When we talk in person, words are not the only factors at play. The tone of delivery, facial expressions, and body language help us understand the intent of the speaker. This is especially important during conversations that involve different opinions. Even when the message is difficult, the tone of the messenger conveys the spirit in which it is delivered. Such luxury is lost during the majority of online conversations. This increases the chances of miscommunication and hence conflict. 

Conflicts are inevitable in all teams, especially remote. Here are 6 tips that will help you solve them.

1. Assume positive intent

As discussed, behavioral signals are often lost during online communication. If you feel offended by any message from your remote colleague, assume positive intent on their part. Reread the message assuming that your colleague has no intention of demeaning you. For example, a message such as “Why didn’t you share the report with me?” might come across a tad rude. However, the sender might just be asking a simple question without any ill will. Give the benefit of the doubt in such cases and reply calmly. 

Of course, this doesn’t work every time. There might be situations where there is genuine friction among teammates. However, a lot of remote conflicts result from simple escalations that could have been avoided by assuming positive intent. 

2. Don’t get into a public spat

Most remote teams use a variety of tools for communication, ranging from emails to sophisticated collaboration software. Occasionally you might have disagreements with someone in a public channel/email stream. Don’t get into an argument in a public channel. It makes it tougher for the other person to assume positive intent. 

If a conversation with a colleague starts to heat up in a public channel, move the discussion to direct messaging. People are usually calmer in private during a conflict. The instinctive reaction to a public spat is saving face which can lead to incessant finger-pointing. On the other hand, it becomes easier to focus on the issue at hand when discussing things in private. This brings us to our next tip.

3. Focus on the problem, not the person

The golden rule of conflict resolution also holds true for remote teams. People are more receptive to feedback and tough conversations if they don’t feel personally attacked. Focusing on the issue at hand rather than the person helps diffuse tension. So rather than saying “You’re difficult to work with.” which won’t elicit a constructive response, try quoting specific instances where you’d have expected more support.  

As Daniel Goleman states, this doesn’t mean that you always have to follow an affiliative approach. If a colleague’s certain behavior persists even after feedback and continues to create conflict, you should escalate the matter to your manager. But the focus should always remain on the specific behavior/problem at hand, not the person. 

4. Follow the 5-minute rule

If an argument on messaging isn’t resolved in 5 minutes, switch to a call (video preferably). The longer you persist on messaging, the higher chances are of you typing something you’ll regret. Because you don’t see or hear your colleague, you aren’t able to assess behavioral signals that are vital in conflicts. 

When you suggest moving the discussion to a call, you also imply that it’s important for you to resolve the argument. It’s a positive signal amidst a heated discussion. Helpscout suggests taking video calls in a quiet, distraction-free room.  It’s important to give your full attention by shutting down other apps and tools. If you’re taking notes, tell the person so they know you’re looking away for a reason. Looking at a face automatically makes us more patient and empathic.

5. Use a collaboration platform 

Remote conflicts are often a result of colleagues not knowing each other enough. After all, there is no office for remote teams where camaraderie can blossom. 

Or is there?

Online collaboration tools recreate the environment of an office virtually. They provide a secure space for remote team members to organize their work, track the performance of various projects and communicate with each other. This increases transparency in the team. Having a virtual office subconsciously increases the feeling of belonging and ownership in remote team members. A lot of conflicts result from miscommunication about priorities. They can be avoided if all the remote team members are managing their tasks in a common secure workspace. 

Most collaboration tools integrate with team messaging tools. Few, like Taskworld, have built-in messaging. If your remote team is relying on emails for communication, their engagement will boost significantly by instead using a team messaging tool. The more remote employees communicate with each other, the less are the chances of potential conflicts. 

6. Organize a physical meetup 

The last tip isn’t exactly about conflict resolution, but conflict prevention. It’s important to note that conflict prevention isn’t the same as conflict avoidance. Conflict avoidance means not engaging in conflict even if the conditions are leading to it. Conflict prevention, on the other hand, is eliminating the conditions that may cause a conflict in the future. It’s a proactive approach.

As discussed before a lot of conflicts in remote teams are a result of the team members not knowing each other enough. This causes a trust and empathy deficit. There is absolutely no better way to build camaraderie among remote team members than to organize a physical meetup. 

A lot of remote teams, especially in smaller organizations don’t get an opportunity to do so simply because it’s expensive for the company to organize physical meetups. While it’s true that it’s expensive to fly everyone to one location, its benefits will definitely exceed the costs. If your organization’s resources are limited, you don’t have to do it often. Even once a year physical meetup will significantly boost collaboration among your team members.

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