Diffusing Conflict in Distributed Teams

June 25, 2020 17 Min Read

Team conflicts happen, whether it’s a simple difference of opinion, misalignment, or a squabble over project details, disagreements happen in all types of organizations.

But dealing with team conflicts remotely… that’s a whole new type of challenge. 😱

Discord in a remote workplace is tricky to spot, and a heck of a challenge to deescalate, once it goes past a certain point. After all, remote employees (and managers) can’t just swing by each other’s desk and exchange a conciliating “pat on the back.”. The missing human touch is a real challenge, the inability to see each other’s emotions, and the fact that any simple text and email can be interrupted in multiple ways.

So how do you diffuse conflicts, remotely? 🧨

To help you navigate the rough seas, we dig into questions like:

💥 3 Sources of Conflict in Distributed Teams

“There’s been a quantum leap technologically in our age, but unless there’s another quantum leap in human relations, unless we learn to live in a new way towards one another, there will be a catastrophe.”

Albert Einstein

1. Team Misalignment

Every team starts with a clean slate, as a group of individuals with different backgrounds, experience, skills and expectations. But when people work and spend time together, even if it’s mostly online, small misalignments that seemed benign at first can quickly cause friction on several fronts:

  • ☝️ Task priorities. How to prioritize work so we don’t fall behind the schedule? Which items on our task list are more important than others? Should we start with task A or task B? How much time should we spend on a task before moving on to another? Go figure…
  • 🤷 Ownership = Leadership. Although distributed teams need autonomy in the decision-making process, they still need a transparent chain of command. When nobody knows who’s in charge, what part of the workload they’re responsible for and who they can ask for help, conflict is around the corner
  • 🤦‍♂️ Expectations. There are as many work styles as there are employees. Some people prefer to work at their own pace and focus on one task at a time. Others thrive in a fast-paced work environment and multitask at every opportunity. Since those work styles come with vastly different expectations of quality and quantity, disagreements are something to be expected

All these obstacles can be a breeding ground for power struggles, enmity and distrust. And when managers can’t or won’t step in to even out the misalignment, problems continue to escalate and erode team integrity “behind the scenes.”

2. Poor Communication

The ability to express one’s thoughts in a clear and organized manner has always been looked at favorably. Even if you’re not in a client-facing role, strong interpersonal skills help build a healthy relationship with colleagues and minimize the risk of misunderstanding.

But good communication becomes even more important in a remote setup. Unlike co-located employees, distributed teams have to deal with:

  • ⏰ Time-zone differences
  • 📥 Delayed replies and feedback
  • 🚧 Technical hiccups like poor internet connection
  • 👋 Lack of non-verbal cues in asynchronous channels

To make matters worse, remote teams often work in communication siloes. The exchange of information is either spread and partial over multiple channels or limited to direct messages between individual employees.

And let’s not forget that it’s much easier to be a horrible person online that it is in face-to-face interactions. When people interact online, social norms tend to loosen up a bit and some people seem to forget the basic principles of communication etiquette.

3. Weak Team Culture

Let’s face it. Many remote employees don’t feel like an integral part of their companies. When you have little to no face-to-face interactions with your colleagues, the opportunities and incentives for building rapport are scarce.

Weak team culture happens when people:

  • ❌ Don’t interact regularly with each other beyond necessity
  • 💁🏻‍♂️ Feel isolated and without any social ties at the workplace
  • 🤝 Struggle to relate to company mission and values
  • 👥 Don’t receive proper support from their supervisors

Without a sense of belonging, it’s really difficult to cultivate team camaraderie. And without team camaraderie, there’s no trust, communication, and transparency, the three essential ingredients of successful remote collaboration.

🔥 The Fallout from Conflict in Distributed Teams

“When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion.” 

Dale Carnegie

So, now that we know what causes conflict in distributed teams, let’s find out what damage it can do.

  • 👉 What happens when remote employees disagree?
  • 👉 Can isolated incidents affect the entire team?
  • 👉 Does temporal animosity affect the quality of work in the long run?
  • 👎 Low morale. For many, social interactions are one of the most important aspects of a job. When you’re around affable, helpful folks, work can be real fun. But when workplace atmosphere is toxic, even the most motivated employees can become miserable
  • 📉 Poor work quality. Once a workplace conflict escalates, people tend to lose focus and become fixated on personal struggles instead of work. All of a sudden, usually productive teams start to slack and small mistakes end up in finger-pointing festivals
  • 👋 Talent drain. This is a no-brainer. Unless your life *really* depends on it and you have no alternatives in sight, there’s no reason to hang around a toxic work environment for a second longer than absolutely necessary
  • 🤐 No incentive for innovation.  When remote employees don’t feel comfortable interacting with each other, they’re less likely to *actively* participate in group discussions. After all, why would you share your ideas or feedback with the rest of the team if the typical response is unconstructive criticism? Without participation, there’s no innovation

🌟 How to Diffuse Conflict in Distributed Teams

“10% of conflicts are due to difference in opinion. 90% are due to wrong tone of voice.” 


And now for the grand finale. 

How to face conflict in a remote setup? How do you make sure your remote employees log in to team communication channels with a smile on their face? Is there any way to prevent conflict from happening?

More importantly, is it a sound idea to avoid conflict at all costs?

1. Prioritize Dialogue

While communication is a staple in an office, distributed teams don’t have it that easy. Remote employees don’t bump into each other in the hallways, they don’t share coffee breaks or stop by the watercooler to chit-chat. That’s why it’s much more difficult to diffuse disagreements, even the small ones, when they come up. 

To address this, you can start with:

  • 👨‍💻 Scheduling 1-on-1 meetings. Direct confrontation is the best way to deal with disagreement. Have a hunch something’s not right? Block some time for a video session with your (problematic) employees and openly voice your concerns
  • 🗓 Running weekly or bi-monthly team meetings. Cultivating healthy team relations requires regular maintenance. Even if your team is mostly autonomous, be sure to gather everybody for a video conference once in a while and see how they’re doing
  • 🌴 *Making* the time for face-to-face meetups. While team meetups and company retreats have been seriously impeded by COVID-19, the situation will eventually come back to normal. And once it does, *make* the time to rekindle the spirit of team BBQs and other activities that bring people closer together

2. Never Attribute Conflict to Malice

There’s a fairly common aphorism called Hanlon’s razor. It states that you should “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” While plain “stupidity” is rarely the case, you shouldn’t approach every dispute like a witch hunt. 

Most of the time, you can attribute conflict in distributed teams to:

  • 🤷‍♂️ Lack of context. Spend an hour stuffing all the *essential* information into an email and you’ll spend another sending out follow-ups. When people collaborate across time zones, the context you want to provide is rarely the context the other person receives
  • 🤔 Plain miscommunication. How many times have you misunderstood somebody’s words in a face-to-face conversation? When you come to think of it, it happens quite often. In a remote setup, a degree of miscommunication is a rule, not an exception
  • 👥 Team misalignment. Some teams are well-aligned, others not so much. While you can pull your hair out trying to integrate your distributed team, some characters and personalities will never get along. Sometimes it’s just better to shuffle the deck and reassign people to different teams than deal with the friction

Ok, what if there *really* is a troublemaker in your team?

Well, regardless of what people put on their CVs, not everybody’s a team player. So, when you realize you’ve stumbled on a bad apple, sometimes it’s just better to part ways than let it negatively affect the rest of the team. 🍏

3. Hit It Early and Hard

Remember what we said earlier about *not* avoiding conflict? When you try to desperately hush every disagreement (sometimes before it surfaces), you risk leaving many things unsaid. It’s like that skeleton in a closet that may come out one day to haunt you.

On the other hand, leaving workplace conflict to run its course is also not the best idea. Distributed teams have *seriously* limited options of diffusing disagreements once they escalate past a certain point. That’s why you don’t want to linger as a passive observer for too long.

Here’s what you should do:

  • 🤬 Be prepared for difficult conversations. Don’t feel like jumping on a video call to discuss the problem 1-on-1? Well, you better be because not everything can be fixed by sending an arbitral email. Prioritize real-time communication that gives you the benefit of visual cues. Don’t rely on email, chat or text for discussing sensitive matters. Not only is it not personal, but it also leaves plenty of room for misunderstanding
  • Engage your HR department. Many companies have HR processes designed specifically to solve employee disputes. If you feel the situation is beyond your capacity or has been going on for too long, reach out to your HR and see if maybe they can help to ease the tension
  • 🤹🏻‍♂️ Create a template. Every instance of workplace conflict is a bit different but most stem from the same garden-variety reasons. The key is to create a flexible template for handling those situations. Pick an appropriate channel of communication, ask the right questions, brainstorm reusable solutions and act on your plan

4. Lead by Example

Finally, you can’t expect your remote employees to respect each other when you don’t give them the right example. Undermining somebody’s authority on a team chat? Scolding people during video conferences? If you want your team to keep things civil, you need to show that “this is how we do things around here.”

Not sure how to send out the right cues? Check out these articles for a handful of tips:

  1. 🤝 The Importance of Remote Workplace Camaraderie
  2. 📣 Overcoming Poor Communication in Distributed Teams
  3. 🤔 Synchronous or Asynchronous Communication

And it’s that simple!

🐑 Conclusion

If there’s one pro-tip we’d give to every (remote) professional, it’d be this:

Regardless if you’re an executive, team manager or core team member, you can’t hope to diffuse conflict without dialogue.

Effective communication is a building block of every successful business and a staple in 100% distributed organizations.

So, following up on that piece of advice, here’s a solid 3-step framework you can use to diffuse conflict in your remote team:

  1. Find a common denominator. Don’t focus on the differences. Instead, find out what makes your team tick, zero in on shared interests, passions and life experiences
  2. 💁‍♂️ Be open about your expectations. Encourage your team to be open about their expectations (and be open about yours). Do they need more flexibility? Or maybe they could use additional guidance and support?
  3. 🤝 Work together to even out the creases. Once you’ve established the common denominator, let everybody weigh in. Brainstorm ideas and make sure everybody’s voice is heard

To make things easier for you, we’ve also created a free checklist that’ll help you manage disagreement in your distributed team:

Before you go… ✋

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You can take Taskade for a spin here. It’s free! 🐑