Conflict management and virtual teams

Abstract

Teamwork in organizations is the increasing norm, yet the challenges of working effectively in teams are considerable. One challenge to team effectiveness is conflict. The effectiveness of individual employees, teams and entire organizations depends on how they manage their interpersonal conflict at work. Global virtual teams grapple with additional complexity introduced by reliance on technology, distance, different sites, different cultures and languages, etc. very extensively.

This paper details published theory, research findings and practitioner observations relating specifically to conflict in virtual teams. This research contributes to understanding of conflict management within teams, virtual, in particular. The inefficiencies and difficulties of managing conflict at a distance with multicultural team members tend to steer the teams toward certain types of strategies. The paper suggests that dispersion and multinational membership heighten the complexity associated with managing conflict effectively in global virtual teams.

Conflict Management and Virtual Teams

Introduction

Today, economic competition has become increasingly important in international commerce. High-tech dominates economic competition. Governments around the world realize that only by strengthening technological innovation, possessing their own intellectual properties and grasping high-tech resources can they take the initiative in economic competition. So, technologically advanced countries adopt various policies to protect their intellectual property rights.

They try to achieve a market monopoly through a technology monopoly. It is spurring the public to place greater value on knowledge-technological resources. They realize that in the future world knowledge is the most important basis for economic growth. A country’s “capability of creation, distribution and use of knowledge” (Hongjin, 1997) will become the core of its competitive power.

The increasing importance of global trade and corporate activity has radically altered the working environment of many organizations. Recent trade agreements, coupled with economic reforms in different countries, have created increased opportunities for international trade. Whereas in the past, multinational operations were solely the domain of the world’s largest corporations, technological advances in both communications and logistics have enabled smaller firms to compete in the global marketplace.

Regardless of firm size, multinational operations require high levels of cooperation and collaboration across broad geographical boundaries. Turning these networks of collaborators into fully connected virtual teams has the potential to increase both the efficiency and quality of communications in this challenging environment. In response to competitive pressures in the global market and to work effectively and efficiently in an international setting, companies have increasingly adopted virtual teams (Lipnack & Stamps, 2000).

The fast pace of globalization requires organizations to be more flexible and to utilize their resources more efficiently. Costs of communication for coordinating activities have long been recognized as among the highest in organizations. Organizations traditionally tend to concentrate their personnel in different functional departments at the same location.

The rapid development of communication technology, widespread deployment of computer networks, and severe competition in the telecommunication market have greatly reduced the cost of communication and, therefore, enabled companies and firms to structure themselves in different ways (Mowshowitz, 1997). This presents increasing interest and possibilities for investors to adopt such type of organization forms is the virtual team.

There are some challenges of virtual teamwork for the Government, Department of Labor and unions. Virtual workers see their priority needs as being able to obtain and expense health insurance and to retain pensions as they change careers. Changing tax policy is necessary. They want home occupation restrictions removed. The shift to contract status, since it is a job description that does not officially exist, suggests that the governmental institutions should coordinate their efforts. In virtual organizations people is object to being always available 24-7, but it is not yet evident what form the resistance can take.

Employers offer overtime pay or comp time and offer telework to more employees. In response to Digital Age virtual work abuses, the government stepped in with fair labor standards. Yet another possibility is greater unionization of these virtual workers including those who are professionals. It happened in response to long hours in the Digital Age; it is not far-fetched to predict that only in groups will employees gain bargaining power they do not have as individuals. With the Internet and e-mail, unions now have the ability of reaching dispersed workers that they formerly lacked and that at least partly accounted for union resistance to virtual work. (Gibson & Cohen 2003)

Defining Virtual Teams

A frequently cited definition of a virtual team provided by Lipnack and Stamps (2000) describes virtual teams as “a group of people who interact through interdependent tasks guided by common purpose” and work “across space, time, and organizational boundaries with links strengthened by webs of communication technologies.”

Similarly, Benson-Armer and Hsieh (1997) defined a virtual team as a group of geographically dispersed workers brought together to accomplish a specific organizational task using information and communication technologies. Both definitions emphasize the similarity and differences between traditional teams and virtual teams. Virtual teams are similar to traditional teams in the sense that all members work together to achieve a shared goal.

However, virtual teams differ from traditional teams in several major aspects. First, members in a virtual team are geographically distributed while traditional teams are gathered in one location. Second, because of spatial separation, virtual team members rely on electronic media for communication. Other researchers have recognized these two characteristics (Sarker, Valacich, & Sarker, 2003; Suchan & Hayzak, 2001; Townsend et al., 1998). The third major difference, regarded as one of the special properties of virtual teams, is its diversity or boundary-spanning capability.

For example, De Sanctis and Monge (1999) defined virtual organization as “a collection of geographically distributed, functionally and/or culturally diverse entities, that are linked by electronic forms of communication and rely on lateral, dynamic relationship for coordination” (p. 693). Suchan and Hayzak (2001) described virtual teams as “collections of geographically dispersed individuals from different functions, specialties, or even organizations” (p. 175). Other research also noted the cultural diversity in virtual teams (Pauleen, 2003).

The flexibility of virtual teams with respect to physical location enables them to include members from different professions, functions, organizations, and countries. As a result, members of virtual teams may bring in the diversity of national cultures, professional trainings, and organizational routines. Suchan and Hzyzak (2001) even suggested that virtual team members have little in common except shared task and interdependence among them.

Scholars with different research focuses have noted additional characteristics. For example, virtual teams are thought to be of ad-hoc congregation (Suchan & Hayzak, 2001). They are called upon for a specific project and dissembled after the mission is accomplished. Sarker, Valacich and Sarker (2003) defined a virtual team as “a temporary collection of individuals linked primarily through computer and communication technologies working across space and time to complete a specific project” (p.35).

Lucas and Baroudi (1994) also characterized virtual teams as temporary groups. In many cases, there is no prior history among virtual team members and no expectation to work together again (Lipnack & Stamps, 2000). In addition, the membership of a virtual team is fluid, with people joining and leaving during the life of the team according to organizational needs (Lipnack & Stamps, 2000).

Advantages of Virtual Teams

Organizations are driven to search for new structures by the need to leverage knowledge and resources that are inefficiently utilized under traditional structures and also to cope with increasing market competition, product development pressure, and environmental fluctuation (Monge & Fulk, 1999). Virtual teams, with their agility, flexibility, and cross-boundary capability, provide several distinct advantages attractive to organizations. In spite of the potential advantages associated with virtual teams, theory suggests, and subjective evidence corroborates, that realizing that potential is a major challenge.

On interdependent tasks, effective collaboration requires that team members learn to communicate well with one another, work through differences, and harness the skills and potential contribution of team members. Global virtual teams encounter challenges in doing so.

First, virtual teams free businesses from geographical limitation in assembling project teams. Traditionally, team member selection is confined in a certain area due to the high interaction demands in teamwork. Communication and information technology allow firms to overcome geographic barriers to choose personnel with the best suitable skills and expertise for the task (Bell & Kozlowski, 2002; Lipnack & Stamps, 2000). This is particularly important in a global market where local expertise holds the key to success.

Second, they have team members in different national contexts, often representing distinct national cultures. Research evidence suggests that differences in race and national culture among team members can be beneficial for teams, but also complicate group processes considerably more than do other differences such as age and gender (Kozan, 1997). Third, virtual teams rely extensively on technology for their interactions, even though there is evidence that some tasks and processes are more readily managed in face-to-face interaction (DeSanctis & Monge, 1999).

Finally, in most instances, distance and time zone differences limit opportunities for synchronous communication of any kind. Virtual teams can help organizations cut costs via reduced travel, hiring from low-wage areas, and shortened product development time.

Communication and Cultural Issues of Virtual Teams

While virtual teams provide those promising benefits, the special characteristics of virtual teams also bring many challenges. For example, fluid membership may create problems for leadership organization memory, team identity, and cohesion. (Bell & Kozlowski, 2002) Lack of prior history may contribute to fragile trust among distant teammates (Knoll and Jarvenpaa, 1998). Particularly, virtual teams face many communication and information challenges, including awareness deficits, due to geographical dispersion, cultural diversity, and limited communication modalities.

Communication is important to team functions and performance. However, team members’ geographical dispersion has negative effects on interaction among teammates. Early study in R&D groups found that the probability of communication between two colleagues dropped with increased physical distance (Allen, 1977). The farther it is between collaborators, the more difficult it becomes to arrange formal meetings and to have spontaneous encounters. Global virtual teams are perfect manifestations of these problems.

The difference in cultural backgrounds also adds to difficulties in communication among virtual team members (Pauleen, 2003). Cultural diversity is sourced not only from nationality or ethnicity. Various professional disciplines as well as organizational settings also contribute to it. These different cultures bring in multiple, and possibly incompatible, mindsets, priorities, norms, and values.

Working toward mutual understanding can be difficult in this context. Knoll and Jarvenpaa (1998) reported that virtual team participants found it difficult to “predict how others would react and were not always sure what to do about reactions” (p. 10). It typifies the situation when there is no common ground due to cultural diversity.

In a review, Bettenhausen (1991) also concluded that the advantages provided by multiple perspectives are often offset by problems in achieving consensus. Without a common ground, it becomes difficult to interpret and respond to messages from distant teammates. Cohen and Mankin (2002) noted similar findings based on their field study of multinational project teams. They also observed that team members learned to consciously avoid slang, colloquialisms, and obscure, culturally based references. It is evident that communication across cultures requires extra cognitive efforts and adds to communication costs for global virtual teams.

Adoption of electronic media and software tools is another concern since virtual teams rely on these electronic links. In order to be effective, these networking technologies must be used by a number of people that constitute a critical mass (Markus, 1994). The more users there are the more benefit each user may receive from using the technology. However, to take full advantage of these networking tools, virtual teams face two constraints. First, the technology infrastructures in different locations may not be compatible with each other.

Incompatibility will make some of the tools difficult to adopt, or render them to sub-par performance. Both may lead to lower adoption rates and, therefore, reduced overall utility of this tool for the group. In a worse case scenario, it may cause a site to be isolated from the rest of the team due to incompatible systems. System designers have recognized this problem and have begun to set universal accessibility and interoperability as design priorities (Steinfield et al., 1999).

Second, the diverse cultural contexts of virtual team members may also hinder the adoption and use of new information technologies respectively.

In summary, cultural diversity in team membership may be beneficial for tasks such as generating alternatives, but it can hamper team functioning by increasing levels of relationship conflict. Furthermore, differing culturally-based preferences for conflict expression and management are likely to complicate efforts to benefit from the diversity while minimizing its potential drawbacks. So what do global virtual teams do to deal with conflict?   Do they find ways to encourage those from conflict-avoiding cultures to actively contribute their input to decisions, even when that requires contradicting the views of teammates?

Conflict Issues Virtual Teams

Considerable research has been done on computer-supported collaborative work performed by dispersed teams. In a review of this literature, Hollingshead and McGrath (1995) discuss the often disparate findings and offer several “cautious conclusions.” Compared to face-to-face groups, computer-assisted groups tend to have more equal participation from team members. This effect appears to be due to an overall reduction in communication rates in these groups, narrowing the range of participation between vocal and less vocal participants. Computer groups tend to have less argumentation, but may have more instances of uninhibited communication (often referred to as “flaming”).

Computer-assisted groups also generally take longer to accomplish a task, although that sometimes changes with time as participants gain familiarity with the technology. They are less likely to reach a consensus than face-to-face groups. The quality of their performance evidently varies according to the task type, doing better on idea-generation tasks, but not as well at solving problems with correct answers or negotiation/conflict resolution tasks. The authors suggest, however, that on certain tasks, computer-assisted groups may outperform their face-to-face counterparts as a result of the task structure imposed by a group performance support system through the computer.

In addition to being tentative, these findings are of dubious use in predicting dynamics in actual virtual teams. Most of the studies reviewed were conducted with students completing short-term projects in a laboratory or classroom setting. In fact, in a review of fifty empirical studies of computer-assisted groups (Hollingshead & McGrath, 1995), forty-two studies included groups that met one time only, generally in a laboratory setting.

Furthermore, such studies have often been limited to comparisons of groups that interact solely face-to-face or via the computer and that work on a project simultaneously rather than sequentially.  Therefore it is difficult to extrapolate from these tenuous findings to dynamics in global virtual teams dealing with complex tasks through a variety of media over a more extended period of time.

Two rival theories, critical mass theory and social definition theory, contend that social issues surrounding media use are as or more important than the characteristics of the media per se in determining how and when it is used. In a study of managerial e-mail use, Markus (1994) found that managers actually use the relatively lean e-mail medium frequently and often for complex communication.

She concludes that “it is not the media per se that determine communication patterns but rather the social processes surrounding media use. Even lean media can be used in rich ways if the organization encourages and supports rich use” (1994, p. 502). More recent research suggests that both social considerations and perceptions of media richness impact media choice (Trevino, Webster, & Stein, 2000). While these studies have not been conducted in teams, this literature has important implications for global virtual teams whose members may be restricted to the use of lean media for most of their interactions.

The uses and limitations of teleconferencing and videoconferencing for organizations are highlighted by Egido (1990). According to information richness theory, videoconferencing and teleconferencing would be the best alternatives to face-to-face meetings for dealing with conflict.

Egido points out that research supports the use of such conferencing for certain types of interactions such as the “presentation or exchange of neutral information” (1990, p. 361) but not for “nonroutine communication tasks (e.g., handling crises, personal affairs, or issues with a high degree of uncertainty)” (1990, p. 358).   This does not bode well for virtual teams unless they can, as Markus (1994) argues, learn to use the media available to them in rich way to resolve conflict.

Mannix, et al., (2002) derive propositions from prior research, including predictions about conflict levels, management, and outcomes. They focus on factors such as common social identity, demographic and informational diversity, swift trust, team norms about conflict, team potency derived from psychological safety and transactive memory, and how these factors are likely to affect conflict and, in turn, performance. The general implication is that it takes longer/is harder to foster functional conflict and minimize dysfunctional conflict in virtual teams than in co-located teams.

A study of dispersed student groups (Montoya-Weiss, et al., 2001) focuses on conflict management strategies as they relate to team performance. Avoidance and compromise behaviors were negatively related to performance, while competition and collaboration positively related to performance. Introducing a structure that guided team interactions attenuated the negative effects of avoidance and compromise.

The authors suggest that their findings regarding competition and compromise behaviors contradicted theory-based predictions. A considerable limitation of this study, however, is that student interactions were limited to asynchronous textual communication through LotusNotes.

Mortensen and Hinds (2001) tested their literature-derived hypotheses through surveys of twenty-four product development teams from five companies, half co-located and half virtual, supplemented by interviews with a sample subset. Some key findings are as follows. Distributed teams did not experience significantly more task and affective conflict than co-located teams, did not rely significantly more on technology to communicate, and were not significantly more diverse culturally.

Both task and affective conflict appeared to be more negatively related to performance in distributed teams. A surprising finding was that cultural heterogeneity was negatively related to conflict levels in this sample, which the authors suggest might be explained by underlying similarity in cognitive processes and training/ efforts to avoid demographically-based conflict.

In summary, the limited information on handling conflict through technology suggests that doing so is problematic. Since global dispersion poses barriers to frequent formal and informal face-to-face interaction, virtual teams must pursue some other course such as leaving conflicts unaddressed, “saving” them until face-to-face meetings take place, or learning to express and resolve conflicts effectively through channels of communication available to them. The first two of these three options are likely to result in growing frustration and hence the “strangely escalating conflicts” observed by Armstrong and Cole (1995).

Conflict Management in Virtual Teams

Global virtual teams grapple with additional complexity introduced by reliance on technology, distance, different sites, different cultures and languages, etc. very extensively. The impact of these factors on team functioning is nontrivial and can prevent teams from meeting their objectives.  Therefore, if the necessary expertise can be found or assembled in one location, a co-located team may be preferable. Alternatively, the objective might be pursued without a team structure, per se. (Gibson & Cohen 2003)

Key considerations for decision to establish a global virtual team include the nature of the task, technological infrastructure, and human resources available to staff the team. From a conflict management perspective, a task well-suited for a GVT would be well-defined, relatively routine, data-centric, non-urgent, and require low levels of interdependence between sites.

Such a task would minimize process conflict, lend itself to conflict management via e-mail, and allow the team the additional time necessary to accomplish the task while dispersed. Given that much of the team’s communication, including conflict management, would take place via technology, team members should have adequate and reliable technology, compatible across sites. Finally, the pool of individuals available for staffing a global virtual team is critically important. (Kirkman & Mathieu, 2005)

Once the decision has been made to form a GVT, team members are selected on the basis of criteria such as availability, expertise, and in some instances, location (e.g., when a marketing team needs individuals with a local perspective in target markets). Team members should be selected with the following criteria in mind. First, they have personalities that permit them to feel comfortable expressing their opinions directly without being abrasive or engaging in personal attacks on other members.

Second, they have a desire to work with individuals from other countries. This desire serves as a buffer to get the team through the inevitable frustrations that arise from working across sites and cultures.  Third, team members know how to use the technologies relied on for team interaction and feel comfortable communicating via technology. Perceptions about the utility of technologies such as e-mail as a medium for managing conflict are likely to benefit the team. (Gibson & Cohen 2003)

Fourth, team members are familiar with the language and culture of at least one other nationality represented on the team.  The ability for team members to understand the words spoken and the cultural norms influencing words and actions is enormously beneficial for teams. The mutual understanding reduces the number of conflicts stemming from miscommunication and generally fosters good will among teammates.

Fifth, team members have worked together previously and had a positive experience doing so. These team members might be expected to engage in more direct conflict expression and feel comfortable managing conflict through lean media such as e-mail. That foundation of strong working relationships could prove especially valuable for teams with tight deadlines or short life spans. (Earley & Gibson, 2002)

Team members feel more comfortable sharing their opinions and disagreement with team members they know well. Though GVTs encounter the obstacle of distance in developing relationships, they can actively attempt to strengthen ties in several ways. First, time spent face-to-face, especially at the inception of a project, can jump start relationship building. This might include time spent working and socializing together.

Second, teams can benefit from exercises that help them get to know and understand one another better. Third, despite its limitations for getting work accomplished, videoconferencing can foster familiarity among team members, especially if a team is unable to meet in person.  (Earley & Gibson, 2002)

Team members should understand that national culture has an impact on whether or not individuals express disagreement, and on the manner in which they express it. Consequently silence, for example, may or may not represent agreement. Team members can learn techniques to help them manage conflict, such as probing for disagreement and identifying conflict cues.

Teams could also benefit from training relating to conflict management through technology. Such training would emphasize the strengths of e-mail for conflict management in situations when time zone differences are extensive, members have variable fluency in the team’s working language, member relationships are strong, and the issue is relatively routine, non-urgent, and data-centric. Training should also emphasize the merits of using technology combinations for difficult or complex issues in order to harness the strengths of written and verbal communication. (Gibson & Cohen 2003)

Teams would do well to discuss which conflict management strategies would benefit the team and then implement them. Team might want to designate or bring onto the team a facilitator who helps the team improve its processes of communication and conflict management. Over time, the team leader or facilitator should monitor how the team is doing with respect to managing conflict, and intervene as necessary.

Danger signals would include a pattern of expressing relationship conflict through flaming e-mail messages, cutting remarks during meetings, backbiting, etc. Interventions might include a team discussion of acceptable conflict management strategies or might tackle difficulties indirectly through additional team building. (Earley & Gibson, 2002)

Conclusion

Teamwork in organizations is the increasing norm, yet the challenges of working effectively in teams are considerable. One challenge to team effectiveness is conflict. The effectiveness of individual employees, teams and entire organizations depends on how they manage their interpersonal conflict at work. Managers spend on average of 20 percent of their time managing conflict. If conflict cannot be avoided, it needs to be managed. Conflict management is what people who experience conflict intend to do as well as what they actually do.

Virtual teams in an organizational context represent a way of organizing work characterized by geographically distributed members that rely on technology-mediated communications to accomplish their tasks. This form of working has become increasingly pervasive amongst global firms. The unique characteristics under which virtual teams operate provide an interesting context for studying conflict and emotion regulation in these teams.

Virtual teams are similar to any functioning teams, in that they have members that are interdependent in their tasks and share responsibility for outcomes. However, virtual teams are also distinct from traditional teams in many ways. Virtual teams, because of the geographical distance between members, rely more heavily on communication and information technologies to facilitate interaction and communication.

These technologies tend to lack the richness of face-to-face interactions in that they are often asynchronous, and lacking in timely feedback and non-verbal cues. Virtual teams, due to their geographical spread tend to comprise members from a more diverse background. Diversity results in a higher likelihood of conflict. Virtual work may also have important implications on conflict management.

Managers and team leaders should invest in helping individuals and teams to diagnose more carefully the types of conflict that emerge. This is particularly true for work situations involving people from different ethnicities and culture, and situations involving virtual work interactions.

Managers and team leaders must be aware that the simple task conflict = good and relationship conflict = bad typology is no longer satisfactory. It is not the objective description but the subjective reality and individual interpretations and reactions to that reality that matter in predicting conflict outcomes. To encourage teams to work towards functional conflict outcomes, managers and team leaders can also teach team members how to manage these conflicts by managing their emotional expressions.

Bibliography

Allen, T. J. (1977). Managing the Flow of Technology: Technology Transfer and Dissemination of Tec