“Fine! Have it your way. Again. You always do.”
“Hey, you had a chance to speak up, and you still haven’t told us why you oppose this proposal. We can’t read your mind.”
“Has it occurred to you that I’m not the only one who thinks this is a bad idea? Maybe I’m the only one who’s willing to speak out.”
Rowan leans in to scrutinize the pixelated faces of the 10 team members who have their cameras on. The expressions of those who still seem to be paying attention suggest they are imploring her to move this fruitless argument along.
She looks down to see multiple private chats from team members, all begging her to “make it stop.” But Rowan realizes that if she pushes for consensus too quickly, the underlying issues at the root of this conflict will continue to fester and may continue to tear the team apart.
With little time left of this weekly team meeting, she’s not sure where to take the conversation.
Sound familiar? Scenarios like this play out for remote teams every day. Important differences that arise, either overtly or covertly, are often brushed aside or ignored in favor of expediency and efficiency.
In our recent LinkedIn Live, Confronting Conflict with Courage in Remote Teams, Penny Pullan of Making Projects Work and I explored why failing to acknowledge conflict can cause so much damage to remote teams, and shared tips for moving to a resolution.
Is conflict a bad thing? If not, why do so many leaders avoid it at all costs?
As a team leader, I’d rather have conflict about a potentially contentious matter than a quick consensus with no discussion. Where there’s conflict, there are people who approach an issue with different perspectives and care about the outcome. Some leaders will do anything to avoid conflict. They may be afraid of it, or don’t feel they have the skills. Or they may be so intent on getting through their jam-packed team meetings that they don’t allocate time for needed discussions. Virtual and hybrid meetings tend to compress multiple topics into an unrealistically short period of time, making an exchange of ideas or any kind of deep discussions almost impossible.
Why is it so hard to detect the presence of conflict in a remote world?
Wishful thinking, for starters. What leader doesn’t want to imagine that their team is cohesive and aligned, with shared values and mutual goals? Confirmation bias can cause us to seek out signs of agreement and ignore any cracks in the foundation. In a remote meeting, we literally can’t see eye to eye even if all have their cameras on, causing us to miss many of the emotional cues and nuances that provide important clues. Add to all this is a tendency to overload meeting time with information sharing vs. real discussions.
How can we detect conflict when it’s not obvious?
Ask people to have cameras on, within reason. Pay close attention to facial expressions, gestures and verbal cues like deep sighs or sarcastic chuckles. When a contested topic comes up, people who are usually talkative may become terse. Or people who used to exchange thoughts are no longer directing comments to each other. Either that, or they’re constantly interrupting each other. Prolonged periods of silence might give you another clue. Distinguish between those expressing genuine doubts and reservations and those expressing real dissent.
How important are agreed-upon norms in facilitating productive conflict?
They’re vital, and the sooner the better. Establish working norms as a team as to how you’ll handle conflict. (It’s best done preemptively, but it’s never too late.) Examples: All opinions are valid and valued. Assume no one has the “right” answers. Brevity and clarity increase shared understanding. Share the air. Balance advocacy with inquiry. Share your thinking. Distinguish opinions and feelings from data and facts. Passing is allowed. Take a pause every 20 seconds. This way, it’s much easier and less awkward to intervene when sparks start flying. The key is to make it easy for people to express contrary views in a way that invites learning and discussion.
What are some tips for addressing conflict, once you’ve noticed it?
As soon as the conflict arises, stop to acknowledge what you’re noticing. (Example: “I am sensing some possible tension between/about……” Be specific and non-evaluative as you explain what you’re observing. Ask: “Am I reading that right?”) Wait for affirmation, and assuming you get it, ask the conflicted individuals to provide a one-line statement about where they stand, and their rationale. Paraphrase what you’ve heard to make sure the team has a shared understanding of the different perspectives. Propose a plan to resolve the conflict, either then and there or in the near future.
Be realistic about how long such a conversation might take, who needs to be involved, and what preparation is needed for a productive discussion. In some cases, the conflict can be resolved after a relatively brief exchange of views. A long-standing conflict fraught with emotion can’t easily be discussed and resolved within a few minutes. If you can’t achieve your meeting goals without a resolution to this conflict, seek agreement on other items before closing the meeting with your plan of action.
What steps can we take when designing a meeting to resolve conflicts productively?
First, try using an asynchronous space to start the conversation, where people can weigh in, ask questions, surface concerns, propose alternate solutions, etc. While I usually favor attributing comments, you may want to make certain online activities anonymous, depending on the power dynamics, level of trust and other factors. By creating an online space where people can start exchanging perspectives, you’ll be able to dive into a well-informed conversation at the start of your meeting.
Consider who really needs to be at the meeting itself, limiting it to those most affected by the outcome. Don’t underestimate how much time you’ll need for debate, discussion and agreement. As you begin, remind people of the agreed-upon team norms. Invite people to say why their participation is important and what this decision will mean for them. This helps all team members understand the decision and its implications from different lenses. Explain the process you’ll be using and why.
Encourage honest thoughts and feelings with questions that invite open dialogue, seeking areas of shared agreement early on. Try something like: “It seems we all care deeply about retaining our best employees, while we may disagree about the best ways to stop people from heading to the exits. Let’s brainstorm some possible actions to consider without judgement for right now.” The key is to remind people that they share many of the same goals.
Invite expressions of doubts and concerns in a way that makes it safe, unearthing potential roadblocks as early as possible. If this is a large group (say, more than 8 or so people), build in opportunities for pairs, triads or breakout groups so people feel safer offering their viewpoints. Encourage people to share what they know about the situation or problem at hand, rather than simply offering opinions. Consider how you might use chat, polling, hands-up or other functions to augment or replace verbal responses, which will be especially important for introverts.
Know when it’s time to close the discussion. This may take the form of moving to consensus by taking a vote of some sort in the moment, making an executive decision based on the input from this conversation (then or later on), or convening yet another meeting after gathering data needed to make a well-informed decision.
Leaders need to enable and encourage the kind of rigorous discussions where ideas are challenged, dissenting viewpoints are shared, and concerns are surfaced safely. Rather than simply hoping that everyone will share the same opinions, you can create a stronger team by deliberately planning for a healthy discussion where people can demonstrate their best critical thinking skills. Attaining alignment may take more time, especially in a remote world, but once done, implementation will follow far more quickly.
Click here for the replay of our October 12 LinkedIn Live – Confronting Conflict with Courage in Remote Teams
Penny Pullan’s website – Making Projects Work
Downloadable resources from Guided Insights:
- Managingconflictchecklist.pdf (guidedinsights.com)
- Structure_Managing_Conflict_Virtually_0621.pdf (guidedinsights.com)
- Post_Decision_Checklist_060413.pdf (guidedinsights.com)
- DecisionMakingWhitePaper.pdf (guidedinsights.com)
- 8 Steps for Facilitating Constructive Conflict, Virtually – Guided Insights
- Tips for creating win-win solutions virtually – Resolving conflicts when you can’t see eye to eye – Guided Insights
- Can’t We All Just Disagree? Reviving the Lost Art of Civilized Disagreement – Guided Insights
- How shared principles finally got a leadership team unstuck – Guided Insights
- Head Off Problems Up Front, Before Cultural Differences Can Get in the Way – Guided Insights
External articles and resources:
- Braver Angels, a national organization that provides tips and training to help bring people together in an increasingly polarized country
- Is Your Team Caught in the Solution Fixation Trap? (hbr.org)
Books I’m eagerly consuming right now: