Leading Remote Teams – Managing Conflict with Remote Employees

In Leadership

By Maura Fay Learning

Task-related or interpersonal conflict is tricky when you work alongside someone. It’s 10 times more complex when that conflict is with someone you rarely see ‘in the flesh’.

Whether you’re leading remote employees or working with colleagues in a virtual team, the challenge of managing remote conflict is very real. At one extreme, it shows up as an open lack of trust, understanding and respect between two people; at the other extreme it manifests itself as the ‘silent treatment’ through a superficial politeness that lacks a genuine level of candour.

We did say it’s not easy!

So, what makes virtual conflict that much more challenging than conflict in person? At Maura Fay Learning we believe these causes sit in three distinct buckets …

  1. The lack of visual cues in body language and facial expressions means it’s much harder to get a read on the other person and develop empathy, even more so if the medium is email. According to Pamela Hinds, a professor in management science and engineering at Stanford University, “by the time you realise there’s a conflict it’s often much later than if you were sitting side-by-side.”
  2. If a difficult conversation goes off the rails, you don’t have the benefit of informal office interactions to build rapport and re-establish trust.
  3. Remote workers are less likely to engage in conflict on the phone or in a conference call because, quite frankly, they may lack the communication skills or confidence to manage remote conflict in the right way.

If you’re still not entirely convinced, reflect on the quality and quantity of the constructive feedback you give to (and receive from) colleagues and direct reports of those in the same office as you versus those more geographically dispersed. Do you notice any differences?

The good news is that as a formal leader or individual contributor, there are many tools and techniques to enhance your virtual conflict skills.

Chances are most of your interactions with your remote colleague is over email. This is problematic. A 2007 study by Syracuse’s Kristin Byron demonstrated what we all know intuitively: using e-mail generally increases the likelihood of conflict and miscommunication. If you’re arguing via email, stop. Pick up the phone and call the other person or schedule a time to do a Skype video call.

Suddenly phoning a colleague or direct report to share your concerns is not the best of ideas; it might trigger defensiveness and put them offside. A better alternative is to call the person and ask if you can set up some time to talk about how things are going. For example, “I’m finding it challenging working remotely and I’d like to spend some time talking about what’s working and how we could be more effective.”

Ideally, when you have the conversation, use a communication medium that has video. With the addition of the video, your facial expressions will help convey your positive intentions. If you are resigned to the phone, you’ll have to convey your sincerity with just your words and tone. In that case, be explicit that you’re interested in making the relationship work for both of you and that you’re open to giving and receiving feedback. You could say, “Thanks so much for setting up this time. I thought it would be valuable to give each other some feedback and to talk about how we can work effectively at a distance.”

When it comes to delivering feedback, use the same formula that you would in any other feedback situation. First, provide clear and concise observations of the person’s behaviour as free of judgment and subjectivity as possible. (For example, instead of “you were rude to me,” try “when you interrupted me as I tried to be heard over the phone…”). Second, describe the impact of the person’s behavior. Phrase the impact as your reaction or impression, not as the objective truth. (“When you talked over me when I was on the conference call, I felt like you don’t respect what I have to say.”). Finally, ask an open-ended question that engages your teammate in a dialogue and helps you to understand one another’s perceptions. (“How did you perceive that call when you were in the meeting room?”). Don’t stop until you each have a clear vision for how a similar situation could play out better the next time.

As you are having this conversation, verbally communicate both the things you are thinking and the things you are feeling. For example, if you are quiet for a moment, don’t leave them wondering, just say, “Give me a moment to think about that.” If you’re taken aback by feedback you receive, say “Wow, that’s a surprise to me — I had no idea!” If you’re struggling with the conversation, say, “This is difficult for me, but I’m glad that we’re getting this stuff on the table.” It will seem foreign at first, but over time, you’ll get used to adding this extra layer of information to your communication.

One of the key skills in resolving a conflict is perspective taking, seeing things from the other person’s point of view. You may be working with limited information if you’ve only met the other party in person a few times, so ask questions like, “How are you seeing this situation? What might I be missing because I’m here and not there?” You can also encourage the other person to see things from your vantage point by asking, “If you were me, what would you do?” This is helpful in any conflict, but especially in a geographically dispersed relationship.

If you have made it to this point, this is already huge progress, but remote people can easily slip out of sight and out of mind. To ensure that your commitments don’t fade just because you won’t bump into each other at the photocopier, spend a few minutes at the end of your conversation to develop an action plan. Where possible, put actions straight into your calendars. If you committed to check in weekly, send a meeting invite. If you promised to follow-up within 24 hours of receiving something, make it a task with a reminder in your calendar. You can even set a monthly reminder to check in with the person just to see how things are going.

Use written communication to document the conversation. If the issues were minor and easily resolved, you can stick to email. If things had deteriorated more than you thought, it might be worth popping a card in the mail. Use a simple message that conveys your gratitude and reinforces your willingness to invest in the relationship; something like: “Thanks for the conversation this morning. I got a much better sense of how tough it is for you when you’re dependent on the team at head office to make a deadline. I also felt like you understood my predicament in having multiple regional teams that I have to support. As we agreed, from now on we’ll have a weekly 15-minute touch point on Monday mornings to make sure our priorities are aligned. Thanks again!”

And finally, casual, informal and unplanned communication dramatically reduces conflict when you’re not in the same location. Take advantage of opportunities for informal interactions to maintain the relationship. Keep your instant messenger open to share personal snippets or jokes throughout the day. Take virtual breaks together, chatting on the phone while you both sip tea. These initiatives create a shared space and provide more opportunities for these spontaneous—but often very productive—workplace conversations.

That’s it for now. As we mentioned earlier, it’s more complex and challenging to manage virtual conflict than conflict in person. Therefore, it’s important to apply these tools and techniques as quickly as possible to create productive conflict with remote employees.

Get in touch if you would like to find out more about Maura Fay Learning’s innovative approach to Leading Remote Teams.

This blog is an extract for our upcoming eBook – Leading Remote Teams. You can pre-register here and get your copy on launch day.

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