Leading Remote Teams Through Conflict is Challenging

Leading remote teams through conflict is challenging, not because of the conflicts themselves, but because of the nature of four areas of concern that leaders themselves fail to take seriously when transitioning their teams from in-person work to remote work.

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It’s important to understand these four areas not only because 80-90% of us are working at home now, but also because leaders have a responsibility now more than ever to focus on diffusing conflict on their remote teams and using those skills to grow a remote team culture.

Leading Remote Teams Through Conflict Requires Understanding Social Norms

Leaders should be aware of the social norms that have grown over the last twenty years of online communication. The reason is, many of those norms are being stretched, challenged and expanded, by the presence of a larger number of people using online communication tools, not for entertainment or distraction, but to accomplish work and productivity goals.

When moving to remote work, leaders should not only be dialed into the norms of online platforms, like Zoom and Slack but also should be dialed into how their teams will adapt-or not-to these platforms.

Leading Remote Teams Through Conflict

Leaders should also be focused on the patterns of behavior that their teams are seeking to move from in-person to a digital environment. As those patterns shift, team members will be cautious at first, but over the course of time, as people become more comfortable with remote work and productivity, team members will eventually come to adopt the communication norms of the communication platforms they are using.

Leading Remote Teams Through Conflict Means Challenging Assumptions

Leaders know that conflict with remote teams is driven by certain assumptions programmed into our online communication systems.

These assumptions include an expectation of anonymity, a lack of real empathy due to a lack of genuine connection and relationship, and a strong desire for instant gratification.

Leading Remote Teams Through Conflict

Leaders understand that when going through the disruption of moving to a remote work environment can “paper over” the assumptions built into the communication systems they use. However, these assumptions need to be openly challenged intentionally on the team by the leader, by the team, and by the organization. If they aren’t challenged, then when conflict arises those unchallenged assumptions will drive the conflict and bind the hands of the team’s leadership as to what tools they can use to diffuse the conflict.

Leading Remote Teams Through Conflict Means Being Tactical

Leaders need to think and act both strategically and tactically to lead teams through the rough times of conflict. If leaders want to diffuse passive-aggressive communication, engage with confrontation effectively, and if they want to intentionally formulate the team around the conflict in a particular way, there are some tactics that are useful and practical.

  • At a strategic level, leaders should assume the best of intentions among people on the team when a conflict arises, not the worst.
  • At the strategic level, with a remote team in conflict, encourage bargaining over the emotional and psychological subtext of the conflict, rather than focusing just on the context of the conflict itself.
  • At the tactical level, engage with the following steps, particularly in an online forum: Pause (before you speak)-breathe (take a small breath before you speak)-speak (clearly and concisely)-breathe (take a breath after you speak)-pause (engage with a pause before allowing the other person to speak).
  • At the tactical level, leaders should be patient…everyone on their team is adapting to online work and remote work right now.
Leading Remote Teams Through Conflict

If leaders employ these tactics, they will be able to initially defuse a conflict situation within the norms of online platforms and remote work, and they will also have the space to begin engaging with higher-order emotional-based conflicts that require more empathy and active listening skills to resolve. 

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