Last week Kathy Kacher and I presented at Association for Talent Development International Conference on the subject of conflict resolution in the virtual workplace. We were scheduled at 4:30 on Sunday and wondered who would show up, but they did!! It turns out conflict in the virtual workplace is a hot topic for leaders in the talent management world.

Virtual conflict is a tricky reality. You know the phrase, “The best laid plans….”? No matter how carefully we communicate in the flat medium of the written word, misunderstanding and confusion is inevitable. Rather than being frustrated or angry, EXPECT it. Everyone in the workforce today, whether CEO or front line supervisor, needs to anticipate asking and answering questions that clarify meaning, especially at the beginning of a new team or relationship.

I teach graduate students in leadership and organizational development for the University of Denver. I do this 100 % online. As an instructor, I am comfortable with the learning platform. I follow instructional design principles, and I do my best to communicate clearly.  Recently, however, I taught a course where almost half my students posed the same questions about a key assignment. I strive to be clear, often an effortful endeavor, so I was deflated that I had obviously missed my mark.

I am human, and my readers aren’t in my head with all my context and experience at their disposal. I reminded myself that taking a few minutes to clean up a confusing message is simply part of the ‘job’ of online facilitation.

My virtual office made it easy to clarify the assignment in case others were also confused. Done. Handled. Students served. Professor noted clarification and made changes to course documents for future classes in less than 10 minutes.

Conflict avoided.

The written medium is flat. It’s harder to “read between the lines” when we don’t have voice tone or body language to help.  Misunderstood writing isn’t a problem unless we don’t take the time to ask when we don’t understand, or if we won’t take responsibility for answering questions and clarifying meaning when others are confused.

Virtual team communication, especially when written, is predominant on most teams, so misunderstandings are common. More frequent verification of understanding and clarification of detail is, quite simply, required.

Left unattended, team conflict can escalate into personality feuds or distrust. On virtual teams, it’s an even greater risk. It’s hard to bring our best when conflict is brewing or people don’t feel safe to speak up. Underlying conflict is harder to see virtually, and virtual team members can hide their feelings. Here are a few behaviors to watch for:

If your team is not asking clarifying questions naturally, you are vulnerable to conflict that doesn’t further team intelligence. It may be draining energy from the team.

Does your team follow communication agreements and use the collaborative apps? Connected teams that have established team protocols and habits have less conflict. Shared agreements help limit confusion, ease project management, and prevent unnecessary misunderstandings that lead to team conflict.

Frequent conversations also connect team members informally. Teams who know each other better understand each other, needing less clarification and verification. Take a few minutes to connect to the team during standing and spontaneous meetings. Reach across virtual distance to check in without an agenda. And, as mentioned, take care to craft our written communications with the audience in mind.

Here are 5 more proactive ways to clear confusion that reduces unnecessary conflict in the virtual workplace:

  1. Take as much time as you need to be sure your writing is as clear as possible before publishing or sending your written communication.
  2. Use the collaboration tools to confirm communication was received, read, responded to, or build in other feedback loops. In other words, ensure the communication has been completed and understood – and that it continues until the task is complete.
  3. ASK for questions. It may seem like the receiver of your message didn’t read carefully, and it may be true but it doesn’t matter. Clarity and aligned understanding prevents unnecessary conflict, so be patient while ensuring it. If you’re like me, you may also waste time judging yourself as a poor communicator. Just expect some back and forth until everyone understands the intended message. Make it a habit.
  4. EXPECT new relationships and teams to iterate team agreements until you get to know one another and settle into team rhythms.
  5. Seek out conflict on purpose. Innovation is iterative, making improvements to an existing system or product based on observation, discussion, quick prototyping, and rapid improvements. For innovation to be groundbreaking or even disruptive, it introduces conflict. It challenges the norm, disrupts people’s habits and the organization’s system. Challenge your team to advocate for their point of view while seeking to understand others’ conflicting views.
  6. Add protocols for efficiency as they are needed. For example, have consistent, predictable due dates and engagement expectations. Include frequent virtual conferences. Most learning happens in discussion that requires regular participation, hearty disagreements, and lots of respectful inquiry and advocacy among the team members. Team routines develop into team rhythms and flows that free people to focus on what matters.

Healthy conflict strengthens teams. Unnecessary conflict due to simple misunderstandings does not. Conflict happens despite your best laid plans. It is how you handle the situation, knowing your job is to clear confusion and seek resolution, that matters.

Also, Working Virtually: Transforming the Mobile Workplace is out! Have you ordered a copy for each of your team members and yourself? Order through Stylus Publishing, and you can receive a 20% discount. You’ll also get access to downloadable tools and assessments for your virtual team and a bonus chapter on virtual meeting management. That should help you clear confusion in the virtual workplace!