One 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).