The How-To Guide to Handling Conflict on Remote Teams

The How-To Guide to Handling Conflict on Remote Teams

Conflicts occur on any team, but on a remote team where face-to-face communication rarely, if ever, happens, noticing them is more difficult. As a remote team manager, you need to see those conflicts when they arise and have a plan to combat them when they do.

While conflict is not always a bad thing, it can become a real drag on a team’s productivity if left unchecked. Even though a remote team does not interact in person, team infighting is enough to make someone not want to sign in every morning or start looking for work elsewhere.

Competition for qualified employees is greater than ever these days, so having a happy, engaged, and cooperative team is essential to meeting your company’s short and long-term goals.

However, last we checked, this isn’t an episode of Stranger Things, and no one has the power to foresee every conflict on the horizon. These tips can show you some of the warning signs and how to deal with a conflict once it’s broken open.

Watch For Changes

Remote managers have a lot on their plates to ensure deadlines are met and the team functions smoothly. Be careful not to get so caught up in details that you overlook larger issues. Your team might seem like it’s humming along on the surface, but take a closer look and you might find trouble brewing underneath.

When remote teams have disagreements, there’s not an easy outlet to let off some steam. There are no coworkers to vent with over coffee, and time zones make it different to have a real-time conversation. The real fighting may be happening in private messages or emails the rest of the team is not copied on.

As such, a conflict might play itself out in a change of tone in emails or online messages. If someone typically uses exclamation points and emojis but suddenly stops and switches to short responses like “Ok” and “Sure,” it could be a sign he or she is unhappy with someone else on the team.

Same thing goes for participation in group threads. Watch if one team member goes out of their way to avoid mentioning someone else or stops engaging entirely.

Or, maybe you see that part of a project is simply not getting done. This could be because of a technical difficulty or other challenge, but it could also be because the people assigned to complete it do not want to work together. Part of your job as a manager is getting to the bottom of these situations to find out what’s really going on.

Be Proactive

Whenever you see behavior like this on your team, do something as soon as you can. Don’t wait for the situation to resolve on its own because chances are it won’t. It’s much more likely that things will get worse than get better unless you as a manager intervene.

However, you don’t need to be a micromanager, watching everything your team does and says like a hawk. No one wants to work on that kind of team, and you’ll see your employees leave before you know it if they feel like you are lording over them.

Instead, ask questions when the time seems right. That sounds like a very vague answer, but every team is different, and it’s hard to say when the right time to intervene will be based on your group’s dynamics.

Ask questions and seek to understand more about what’s going on and why tensions might be escalating. You might find it’s a simple misunderstanding or that it’s a larger issue that will require offline intervention.

One drawback to remote teams is that team members can’t always gauge where they stand in relationship to each other. One person might feel like he or she is being kept out of the loop on something when that’s not the case. But, because there’s no way to gauge the information you receive with respect to everyone else, things can quickly get out of hand.

These situations are the perfect opportunity for you as a manager to do a level set and reassure everyone about the status of the team.

Take It Offline

If you’ve spent any time working remotely, you know it’s easy for written, asynchronous communication to be taken out of context. What one person means as a joke can easily be taken as an insult, especially if there are multiple cultures on the team.

The best way to combat these issues is with offline communication. This could be a phone call, video meeting, or whatever works best for your team. It might mean you need to get up early or stay up late to talk with someone working in a different time zone, but that’s part of the territory as a remote manager.

Whatever communication method you choose, here’s a game plan to keep the conversation on track.

  • Set an agenda: This does not need to include every single detail of the meeting, but it should outline objectives and any relevant background information to help bring everyone on the same page before the meeting begins.
  • State the problem: Channel your inner lawyer and begin the discussion by stating the facts of the case. This is not a place to pass judgment one way or the other but instead to sum up the facts as you know them up to that point.
This is not a place to pass judgment one way or the other. Click To Tweet
  • Allow each person to share: Once the framework is in place, allow each team member involved in the conflict to share his or her perception of what’s going on. Be clear that this is not the place for others (including you) to agree or disagree. Rather, it’s a means for everyone to feel that their voices are being heard.
  • Create a plan: Once the facts and opinions are on the table, you may be able to work through an action plan on the spot. Or you may need more time to reflect on what’s going on before you come back to the team with ideas on how to fix it. Either way, be clear about next steps — the last thing you want is more confusion about how the situation will be resolved.
Don’t just forget about the problem and go back to business as usual. Click To Tweet
  • Gain buy-in: Whatever the solution is, everyone involved needs to buy in. Otherwise it will never work, and you will all find yourselves right back in the same situation before too long.
  • Check progress: Don’t just forget about the problem and go back to business as usual. Schedule a follow up meeting to see how things are going and address any related items that may arise. Keep an eye on other types of communication, too, for signs team members are reverting back to past behavior.

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Shift Perspectives and Seek Help

One tactic for successful problem solving is to imagine yourself as the person you’re in conflict with. What are their concerns? Their fears? Their goals? What or who is standing in their way?

Taking a hard look at these questions will help you understand where someone is coming from and what might be at the heart of the issue. You’ll be able to empathize with them and help prevent the same situation from happening again in the future.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help if needed, especially if you are a newer manager. Seek guidance from a more seasoned leader who can help you work through these scenarios and create your action plan for resolving the conflict on your team.

Some people shy away from this type of outreach because they think it will make them look weak to their team, when it’s actually the opposite. Your team will appreciate the fact you are working hard to get the situation resolved and consulting others instead of just winging it if you are not equipped to do so.

And, remember there is rarely a magic bullet solution for a conflict.  It’s a marathon, not a sprint, that will require work from everyone involved to fully resolve.

The Power of Conflict

Conflict on any team, even a remote one, is not necessarily a bad thing! Sometimes the best ideas come about when team members initially disagree but find a place of compromise.

The world would be a pretty boring place if everyone thought the same way about everything all the time. The ability to listen to and accept other perspectives is one of the things that makes us so great.

This is not to say you should look for reasons to introduce conflict into your team. No one wants their work environment to resemble Game of Thrones where everyone is constantly pitted against each other.

However, a little healthy debate every once in a while might be just what your team needs to get out of a rut or rethink a project or task entirely.

So don’t shy away from conflict on your remote team. Rather, embrace it and make your team stronger because of it. As long as you recognize conflict and deal with it as it arises, there are few situations you can’t handle #likeaboss.

Have you had conflicts arise on your remote team? How did you handle it? Looking back, would you have done anything differently?

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