Managing Conflict on Virtual Project Teams

Managing Conflict on Virtual Project Teams

Have you ever managed a virtual project team that seemed to be riddled with conflict? Do you feel that you spend more time dealing with conflict than managing the project?  Here is some of information to help you understand, respond to, and manage conflict.

What is Conflict?

Conflict is the perceived or the realized differences in interest, views, or goals of its members.  On virtual teams, conflict can arise due to misunderstandings and limited communication.   Table 1 lists the six types of conflict in teams.

Table 1 - Sources of Conflict

Table 1 – Sources of Conflict. Adapted from Managing Conflict In Organizations, by M. Rahim, 1985, New York, NY: Praeger.

Conflict is a natural occurrence that can have both negative and positive effects on the team’s environment. When leaders do not address conflict,

  • members are withdrawn from each other,
  • motivation and initiative decreases, and
  • members become territorial about their tasks and stop sharing information.

However, conflict also

  • promotes intellectual creativity,
  • provides opportunities to build effective relationships,
  • promotes group thinking, and
  • resolves different points of views about the goals.
Manager’s Response to Conflict

Research shows that the method of communication has no effect on a leadership’s ability to manage conflict (Huang, Jestice, and Kahai, 2010 & Sponholtz, 2010).  Table 2 outlines approaches to conflict whether the leader uses synchronous methods (e.g. phone calls and videoconferencing) or asynchronous methods (e.g. e-mails and blogs).

Table 2 - Thomas Kilmann Model of Conflict Resolution

Table 2 – Thomas Kilmann Model of Conflict Resolution

On virtual teams, there are fewer opportunities for leaders to interact with team members.  As a result, leaders tend to communicate only when it is task-related.  This creates a feeling of isolation amongst team members.  To avoid this, leaders should make deliberate efforts to build trust and shared understanding of norms and procedures by

  • having non-task-related interactions (small talk),
  • establishing regular communication times, and
  • making regular personal visits to remote sites.
How to Minimize Conflict

Communication is key.  Devin Deen of (2011) suggests the following six steps to ensure success in managing virtual project teams.

  1. Team Building.  Start new projects with a team building activity such as a webinar or an online multiplayer game.
  2. Interpersonal Relationships.  Encourage and build interpersonal relationships amongst team members.  Some suggestions include taking a few minutes before each meeting to discuss weekends or starting a Facebook group.
  3. Daily Meetings.  These are a MUST HAVE.  Take a few minutes at the start of the day to discuss (1) where we are, (2) where we’re going, and (3) where we’ve been.
  4. Conferencing.  Hold routine meetings using phone- or videoconferencing.  Also, utilize web sharing with one desktop open.
  5. Follow the Sun.  When working with members in different time zones, organize your team so that your deliverables follow the sun.
  6. Daily Summaries.  At the end of the day, have your team send you quick 5-minute e-mails that state what they did, what issues they encountered, what they need help with, and what’s on board for the next day.
Leading virtual teams can be demanding due to a combination of challenges.  Understanding the sources of conflict and how to address them will help leaders in effectively manage conflict on their teams.  Frequent and open communication is essential to successfully managing virtual teams and minimizing conflict.  For more information on how manage conflict on your teams, contact us at