Virtual Teams

Avoiding Conflict in Global Virtual Teams

Continuing our series of ‘Matrix Monday’ posts, which take a look at the literature relating to matrix environments, today Global integration consultant John  Bland looks at a paper which offers some insight into global virtual teams and their potential sources of conflict.

All teams experience conflict, but a global virtual team has extra factors that increase the amount of conflict versus a face-to-face hierarchical team.  This blog summarises an article that studied the causes of this additional conflict, and suggests ways to avoid conflict from these sources.

Global Integration has identified five additional factors to Global Virtual Team working (summarised in our video-cast “The Five Barriers” which we can supply on request). We should expect more conflict than with traditional teams because these barriers create more opportunities for miscommunication and misunderstandings.

Kankanhalli, Tan and Wei studied conflict in global virtual teams populated by masters’ students who had been tasked with undertaking a global virtual project.  Their study, presented in the Journal of Management Systems, is therefore somewhat artificial, but it nevertheless sheds some interesting light on where this additional conflict can come from.

They found that three separate aspects of “National Culture” caused problems as follows:

  • Broader cultural issues caused most cultural conflict.  “Broader Cultural Issues” means differences such as individual or group oriented cultures working together — (differences that we cover and summarise in the ‘cultural abacus’ we use in cross cultural training). 
  • Language problems were also responsible (both poor English ability, and sub-groups working in a language not understood by everyone).
  • In addition, national differences (simply not liking another country and it’s culture) were the third factor.

Many organizations have worked hard to get culture “off the table” so that it is no longer an issue, and at Global Integration we know that there are three steps to achieving this and avoiding this potential source of conflict:

  1. Recruit people who are open-minded about all cultures and not judgemental;
  2. Recruit people with good skills in English as a second language. In countries where this is not possible, you’ll need to provide English training;
  3. Provide training on the broader cultural issues.

Functional Diversity also caused conflict, because of:

  1. Differences in priorities;
  2. Differing assumptions made;
  3. Different levels of knowledge and understanding.

At Global Integration, we have some key tools and tips to help with this in our Matrix Management training.  But it is also important to know that some of these sources of conflict (for example priority clashes) are a feature of the matrix, so we have to learn to live with them and the conflict they create.

Finally Technology caused conflict too due to two factors: –

  1. Large volumes of communication (made possible by email) leading to information overload and people simply missing the important stuff.
  2. Misunderstandings caused by a lack of immediacy of feedback or response

These are problems shared by many of our remote and virtual team programme participants. One tip is to reduce the communication overload by simply sending out fewer emails yourself.  Another is to stop using “reply all”.  Here our training on Virtual Teams looks at these issues in more depth and shows how to communicate through technology effectively.

Source: Conflict and Performance in Global Virtual Teams Kankanhalli, Atreyi; Tan, Bernard C.Y.; and Wei, Kwok-Kee. Journal of Management Information Systems Vol. 23 No. 3, Winter 2007 pp. 237 – 274

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