From differences in opinion to flat out misunderstandings, conflicts with our virtual teams are inevitable. Differences in language, culture, and working styles can cause all kinds of issues. So what can we do to prevent and resolve these conflicts when they arise?
Since no one responds well when feeling under attack, (1) it’s best to essentially ban the use of accusatory, derogatory language. Fine-tuning that point a bit, (2) it’s also wise to avoid critical language as much as possible. While that might sound to some like a tall order, it’s often simply a matter of how a comment is framed. For example, it’s not so much that coworker Joe is a selfish jerk; it’s more that others feel deprived when he takes two doughnuts—even though there’s never enough for everyone. A classic positive approach is to use “I” phrasing when raising a concern, as in, “I was disappointed to not get a doughnut again this week.” And while some might consider that a bit too touchy-feely in a professional setting, note that its efficacy has a long track record. This leads us to point number (3): keep phrasing objective and fact-based, not subjective. Whether Joe is a selfish jerk is debatable; whether a coworker feels disappointed is not debatable.
The next points should be no surprise: (4) assume positive intent. Also, (5) strive to keep the interaction as constructive as possible. Since there’s another side to every story, it’s also important to (6) acknowledge one’s own contribution to the situation. And, (7) it’s best to address only one issue at a time. If in the course of discussion someone brings up a separate concern—like, “Oh yeah? Well, you never clean up after yourself in the break room”—set that aside to be addressed at a later time.
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Happy new year everyone, I wish you a very virtual two thousand and sixteen, this week I want to spend some time talking about how we can resolve conflict on our virtual teams. Clearly conflict is inevitable, it’s just going to happen. I can’t think of a single team I’ve ever worked on where there wasn’t some sort of conflict and on remote teams when we add the differences in language and in culture and in working styles I mean of course it’s going to happen so what we do? Before we talk about how to resolve a conflict I want to spend a little bit of time talking about how we prevent it to begin with. There are a couple of things that I’ve come across that really help get teams on the same page, one is creating a team agreement, which is your basic set of guidelines for how you want to work together as a team. I’ve talked about that a lot on this podcast but the more I talk about it and the more I see it I think the more powerful it is. I’m really an advocate for getting your team together to talk about how you want to work together and the styles of working that you do, it’s so easy and it’s so powerful. There’s just really no excuse to do it, at least I haven’t thought of one, after the team agreement, I think that having regularly scheduled retrospectives is the next most powerful thing you can do to prevent real conflict on your team. We’ve talked about retrospectives a lot on this podcast as well but it’s basically just a set time where teams get together regularly and reflect on how things are going as a team in general and there’s many different formats that you can look up, if you just look up agile retrospectives you will find a number of different formats. Having these retrospectives gives your team a regular outlet for discussing the things that might not have room to surface otherwise, in episode ten I interviewed Jeremy Stanton and he puts it really well when he say ‘you have to give room for somebody’s got the feels, you want to make space for that.’ So even with the best preventative techniques in place will still have conflict, it’s just the nature of the beast. So let’s get to how to resolve conflict, on virtual teams a lot of our communication is written right, we are using group instant messaging systems and emails and chats, because of that written feedback is also very natural and my favorite way for giving written feedback is [inaudible – 02:42] and it’s not just because I’m a [inaudible – 02:47] fan it’s also because I really think the method is powerful. I’ll give you a quick example, essentially what you do is set your context, you then list your observations, you express your emotions and you suggest ways of moving forward and what I really like about it especially is that your setting your context, so what I mean by that is you start your email saying where you are and what your situation is. So for instance I could say ‘hi Joe I’m sitting in a crowded airport, my flight is delayed and there are five screaming babies surrounding me, so I’m not in the best of moods.’ So you frame your setting, which I like, it gives context to what you’re about to say and it’s more personal. After that we list observations, so this has nothing to do with how you feel about something, it’s simply what you’ve observed. ‘I noticed that you color-coded the SpreadSheet in red and green and I thought we had decided on blue and yellow.’ Simply stare at the observations. After that we can express our emotions, ‘I feel frustrated that the SpreadSheet colors aren’t correct,’ and then we offer our suggestions and ways of moving forward. ‘I suggest that we put the company’s branding information in a place that’s easier for people to access for example.’ So again it’s setting the context, listing the observations, telling how we feel about it and then suggesting ways of moving forward and I find the feedback wrap just a very constructive way of talking with each other but as I well know sometimes emotions start to run high and when that happens and we all know when that is then we need to move away from the written word as hard as it is but when we work remotely it’s much better if we can hop on video and go e-face to e-face, there is no question that video really helps humanize the remote workspace and it gives us the visual cues that feel in all kinds of context and when video doesn’t work or when things are really out of place where there’s an impasse I suggest bringing in a moderator who can help facilitate a good conversation. Sometimes having a third person there who can really facilitate that everybody gets to speak and to be heard can make for a constructive way to move forward and it seems after that what we are left with is virtual pillow fights right. Okay so some pro tips that I’ve learned in the interviews one and the number one rule on virtual teams it said, assume positive intent. It’s way easier said than done but very important, I mean because we have so much lack of context because there are significant differences in the way that we behave culturally and in the language we just need to start by assuming that our colleagues meant well. The next tip is don’t let things fester, just don’t let things go in too long. When things are bothering you it’s really good to resolve them. The retrospectives are a great way for this, I mean if it is a non-priority item that just doesn’t have to be brought up right away, then a retrospective can be a great place for that but also the feedback wrap can be used for this because the danger is that when small frustrations build up over time they can often go to the point where there is just no return. I’m probably guiltier of this than anybody out there, this is definitely an area for me and the third tip is don’t lash out whatever you do. When emotions are running high don’t say that thing that’s going to sting, so as much as it might feel good in the moment, those stings can cause permanent damage and we want to avoid permanent damage. Okay so those were my pro tips, I want to leave you with one final tool that could be very interesting for your team and that is a tool called Prelude. It’s a trust-building game for virtual teams, I had a great interview with the amazing and awesome doctor Howard Espn. It’s on episode two way back in the beginning but Howard and I have become and remained friends ever since and have done a number of collaborations together and hopefully, we will continue to do so. So I encourage you to check out Prelude at playprelude.com, it can be a great team-building exercise. Alright everyone lets go and resolve some conflicts on our virtual teams, that’s all I’ve got for you this week. I hope you’ll stay tuned for next week where I interview Andrea [inaudible 07:25] from Argentina. She’s an information’s systems engineer who went freelance after working in very large gas and oil companies, we talk about the challenges of being always on and developing trust with new clients as a freelancer, of course, we talk about cultural differences and she has some great advice which is really take advantage of the time when you work remote and take advantage of the time when you work co-located. There’s different things to be used there and we discovered at the end of the interview that we were wearing the same necklace. So if you’re watching the video part of this you can check that out. These interviews just get more and more enjoyable I’ve got to tell you. A huge thanks to our Andrea [inaudible 08:09] from the Washington DC area who left me a marvelously stunning review on the podcast, thank you so much, Andrea, I appreciate you. Another big thanks to the awesome Nick the podcast monster, thanks so much for everything Nick, you can hire him to make you a star at podcastmonster.com. Have a great conflict-free week everyone, until next time be powerful.