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Resolving Disagreements in Virtual Teams

conflictOne of the more difficult team dynamics project managers must face from time-to-time is conflict. The ‘conflict’ can be project-related or interpersonal, but either way, strong feelings are often involved, making rational resolutions difficult. For virtual teams where face-to-face time is rare or non-existent, conflict resolution can be especially challenging, even for the highly skilled virtual team manager.

Whether you are managing a virtual team or a traditional one, I have learned from many years of team experience that even the most emotionally charged of disagreements can be resolved when people bring hard data to the table to support their positions and engage in an open, honest, respectful dialog around the data. If your team is not on speaking terms, then you must deal with that first. You may have to calm people down remind them of their adult status before constructive discussions can commence. For this blog, I will assume that things are not that bad with your team.

I have led or participated in countless meetings where issues went round and round, with no convergence on a solution until someone (often yours truly) went up to the board and drew a diagram or listed the pros and cons of the current issue. Having something visual on which everyone can focus their attention removes a great deal of the ambiguity and misunderstanding nearly always present in a disagreement. The very act of putting ‘pen to paper’ requires that ideas be articulated, enumerated and quantified. Once the initial capture of the issues and supporting data is complete, the team leader can then facilitate discussion and debate around the ideas and build and refine a conceptual model until everyone agrees their issues have been covered. Once all sides have had enough time to make their cases, the leader can either try for unanimous agreement on a decision, call for a vote if 100% agreement is not possible, or she can just make the decision herself, given that all the pertinent data has been presented. In this last case, all participants should at least leave with a feeling that at least their ideas were heard and understood by all.

As it turns out, this process can actually run better with a virtual team than face-to-face provided everyone has access to a decent real-time PC desktop sharing tool. I personally believe this is true because people are unable to see eye-rolling and other body language cues from others that tend to escalate emotions.  Instead, everyone is forced to vocalize their feelings and ideas, making intentions clearer to everyone.

The best real-time collaboration tools to use in discussions is either a desktop sharing tool such as NetMeeting, WebEx or Microsoft Shared View, or an on-line, multi-user whiteboard tool such as that in NetMeeting or Vyew.com’s Web-based application.  It is best, especially if the leader needs to break the meeting into working subgroups, to use a whiteboard, but this is not always possible for inexperienced virtual teams. However, and I must emphasize this, it is CRITICAL that there be some form of visual tool to capture the issues and focus everyones’ attention on the discussion. Otherwise, words and ideas stay ethereal, making it difficult to reach conclusions everyone can buy into. You can get more information on some of the more popular whiteboarding and desktop sharing tools at CommuteZero.com, my virtual team information site.

In summary, resolving disagreements in virtual teams can be greatly expedited by capturing everyones’ ideas on ‘virtual paper’. This snapshot of the issue(s) is then used to facilitate real-time discussion, where the ideas discussed are captured in real-time. This process works just as well for face-to-face teams, but is essential for virtual teams where there are no visual cues to help discussion (the pros and cons of video is a topic for another blog).

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About the Author

Loyal has more than 28 years of project engineering and management experience in R&D, manufacturing, and information technology. He has worked in the high-tech industry as a design engineer, R&D section manager and manufacturing engineering manager, and has led teams that included virtual and telecommuting contributors from all over the world. He is an expert in the use of collaborative technologies for virtual teams and has led advanced technology development efforts to improve the effectiveness of virtual workers. He is founder of calendarism.com and leads a blog site for virtual teams and collaboration tools at commutezero.com. He has a degree in Electronics and Computer Science and lives in California's Silicon Valley. Loyal can be contacted at loyal@commutezero.com
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2 Responses to “Resolving Disagreements in Virtual Teams”

  1. I think you cannot prevent to have different views on an issue but you can work to prevent personal emotions. The project manager doesn’t have all the time the possibility to choose his ressources but he usually can choose some of them and have something to say on the other ones.
    In choosing the ressources, he can try to see who could help him to address the major difficulties that the team will face like associate cultural differences, team building, manage technical dead end….
    So he can basically analyse the group of ressources and the combined skills right from the get go. With that analysis, he can ajust the group quickly.
    Also, right from the get go the project manager can focus on the personal motivation of each member and adjust the tasks, communication, sub groups….
    with this done and with daily social networking, micro team building and confidence, you can prevent and anticipate some of the personal issue that will arise. I will call this anticipate

  2. Loyal:

    I agree with your major points, and would like to add support for your recommendations about “putting pen to paper.” I have worked with teams for over 30 years. In that time, two key observations have continuously come to the forefront when dealing with team dynamics:

    1. People regularly employ what I like to call “convenient memory” – in other words, they remember events in terms of their own viewpoint and what best resonates with them (whether what they “remember” reflects the reality of what actually happened or not). By making visuals, and/or a written record of major discussion points, part(s) of the process, there are fewer opportunities for “convenient memory” to blur what actually happens in a discussion (as well as after the fact).

    2. The record and/or visuals from a meeting are also useful for follow-up after the meeting, especially for those who need to process information for a time before commenting. Such summary material may also highlight misconceptions arising from skewed interpretations of the spoken word. How many times have each of us seen a record of what we supposedly stated in a meeting, only to exclaim, “That’s not what I meant!”

    Finally, I must disagree with Vincent Bernard’s view that “I think you cannot prevent to have different views on an issue but you can work to prevent personal emotions.” One cannot “prevent personal emotions” – to try is futile. However, we can try to channel emotions (once they begin to come to the surface) into more positive interaction by maintaining everyone’s focus on the facts, and by establishing ground rules concerning: 1)the undesirability of personal attacks, and 2)the handling of defocusing elements, e.g., side discussions and discussions that stray in directions that divert attention away from the main focus of the discussion.

    The marvels of today’s technology have certainly made our ability to connect with other team members much more “real time,” but there are indeed pitfalls that one must take into consideration when selecting a facility to employ. I sometimes worry about the lack of visual cues when non-visual forms of communication like email, texting, and teleconferencing are employed. However, I tend to agree that the advent of these communication methods HAVE required that thoughtful and responsible individuals are forced to be more deliberate and accurate in their verbal communication to ensure that their message is clear.

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