Matrix Monday Conflict and performance in global virtual teams

Today’s Matrix Monday post (#matrixmonday on Twitter) is a review by Kevan Hall of a paper by Kankanhalli, Tan and Wei: Conflict and performance in global virtual teams.

In this paper, the authors examine factors that can lead to conflict in global virtual teams. The impact of team diversity is seen as positive in creativity and enabling different skills and perspectives to be brought to bear, but adds challenges by reducing team cohesion and increasing conflict.

It looks at the impact of technology, task and team characteristics on both task related and relationship conflict. It considers conflict primarily on the basis of its impact on task related performance.

Interestingly, in the literature review, the authors conclude that some studies of relationship conflict have concluded that it is detrimental to team performance (though others are inconclusive), but several studies show that a moderate levels of task conflict is beneficial to team performance, particularly when working on non-routine tasks. So it is not all about harmony – some conflict can be advantageous.

Unsurprisingly, avoiding the problem at the heart of the conflict is not a winning strategy. Using collaboration or assertion (by the boss) seems to be more successful.

Global virtual teams are characterized by high levels of diversity. The authors distinguish between functional and social diversity.

Functional diversity (education, experience and expertise) correlates well with innovation and speed to response but can lead to increased task conflict.

Social diversity (differences in race, gender, culture and age) can cause more relationship conflict. Studies have tended to find an increase in conflict or are inconclusive. Cultural diversity was the antecedent of 17 out of 29 conflict episodes in the study.

Virtual teams that rely more heavily on technology were found to experience higher levels of task conflict and the conflict seemed to have a worse impact. Relationship conflict is a bigger problem the more the tasks are interdependent. Email overload and delays in feedback from asynchronous communication contributed to task conflict.

A lot of academic studies are conducted with students or in artificial environments: we need to be careful about applying the findings to real business teams where the stakes and the complexity are much higher.

Our observation from our work in global, virtual and matrix teams, is that conflict, of course, can arise and is harder to identify and resolve than in face to face teams.

If we are working together through technology and rarely meet, it can be hard to ‘storm’ and conflict can drag on and remain unresolved. Managers and team members need the skills to identify and resolve conflict across barriers of distance and with a diverse group of colleagues.

The only constructive conflict is the one that is discussed and resolved into new ways of working together in the future. Unresolved conflict will reoccur and is not helpful.

How do you mange conflict in your organization? Any tips, processes or ideas to share?


Why Not…?

  • See the abstract for this article (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)
  • Preorder Kevan Hall’s new book, “Making the matrix work”, which contains a  chapter  on  – and new tools for – managing conflict.
  • Join our Matrix Management Group on LinkedIn (link to the right of this page on most devices)

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