Leading the isolated worker: dealing with conflict

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When leading remote teams, you may think tensions that can arise between co-workers in the office are gone. Even with remote teams, we often don’t know about issues that arise between co-workers until they erupt into major problems or missed deadlines.

What are the best ways to manage conflict when the team isn’t together?Absence may make the heart grow fonder in some relationships, but the link between communication and physical presence, and working remotely raises some unique issues.

The potential for conflict increases: When a hasty or unclear message is sent, the recipient often fills in the blanks with their own interpretations. As time passes, those misinterpretations lead to disagreements and only increase if not addressed and resolved.

Less opportunity for informal communication: At the office, it’s easier to bring up a small issue, concern or clear up a misunderstanding when your co-worker is just down the hall. When team members are making decisions at a distance, and other people only find out later what was done, they are left wondering, “Why did they do that? Why wasn’t I included?”

Communication signals are missed: Inserting a negative tone on someone’s message can be so automatic we aren’t even aware that it’s happening. It is human nature to tell ourselves a story in the absence of visual cues or complete information. A simple, “Could you get that report to me this afternoon?” can be heard as, “Just another carping email from the boss; he has no clue that I am up to my eyeballs in a crisis here.”

Here are some tips leaders can use when addressing tension or conflict with remote teams.

  1. Advise your team to step away from email in tense situations. When teammates find themselves villainizing a co-worker, writing a story in their head about motives or just having a disagreement, pick up the phone. Or better yet, encourage them to use video conference software. Having eye contact, watching the nonverbal communication and hearing each other’s tones of voice can break through the negative assumptions.
  2. Set up a mutually agreeable time between team members to focus on key conversations and talk it through. Turn on the empathetic listening and turn off distractions such as beeping email alerts and ringing cell phones. Listen first to understand the differences before jumping to assumptions, conclusions or solutions. This works in the office, as well as remotely.
  3. Think it through before you talk. Think about the outcome you both would like to achieve and frame your words carefully. Have a fact-based discussion and use “I” instead of “you.” For example, don’t say “You didn’t present that topic well.” Instead say, “I would have found more detail to be helpful.” Make notes and have an outline of the points that are important so that the discussion doesn’t get lost.
  4. Have team members separate feelings from the issue. Focus on observed behaviors and avoid assigning a motive to an action. Don’t say, “You are not doing your work for this project on purpose because you dislike me.” Instead say, “I need this project to get finished and your participation is crucial; can I count on you?” Sticking to the facts and observed behaviors, not personal grudges, will go a long way to prevent a conversation from getting off-track.
  5. It is important to raise issues or differences early and not let them fester into bigger problems. Don’t keep putting them off and thinking that they’ll go away. Instead, address issues as soon as possible. Set up a video conference meeting to discuss the issue and keep it focused on the points listed previously.

As a leader, it’s easy to ignore the signals of conflict brewing on your remote team, especially if conflict avoidance is your default position. Most of us avoid or delay uncomfortable conversations even with people who sit beside us.

It’s natural to dislike confrontation. Now, imagine how easy it is to let concerns fester when your teammate isn’t in the same building. Avoiding an important conversation with a co-worker is a bad idea and even worse with a remote teammate.

Get the issues out in the open as quickly as possible to prevent them from damaging relationships and affecting your ability to get the job done.

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