Interpersonal conflict on any team can impact an entire team—and for distributed teams, it can be devastating. When remote team members are in conflict, the rest of the distributed team can only guess at how things will turn out and everyone proceeds with caution (or not at all). The remote team members in conflict can't easily walk into a private room and resolve their issues. Or can they? What if resolution is more about how we think about the conflict instead of where opposing parties are located?
If you are in conflict with someone else on a distributed team, there are a number of things you can do to help resolve the conflict.
Stop the Storyteller
When you feel you have been wronged by another team member, you are better off pausing than reacting. When we react, we get into trouble jumping to conclusions, especially when we are in conflict with a team member in a remote location that we do not know well. We tell ourselves a story about the other person's intent, which is usually based on past experience. The problem is that past experience may be more about experience with other people, teams and organizations and may not necessarily be true for the current situation. So you have to stop yourself in that “storytelling” and put the emotion in check.
Rewind and Replay the Facts
Next, take the time to carefully think back to the events and facts that led to the conflict. Only keep track of the facts. Be careful not to assume why something happened. This is going back to storytelling.
When you do feel an emotional trigger or catch yourself strongly assuming intent when reviewing a particular event or fact, pause to understand what the source of that strong reaction is. Are you reacting because of your interpretation of their intent? Do you have anything to prove that intent, or is your past experience with others causing you to jump to conclusions (a story we may tell ourselves)? Make note of these trigger points in the facts and get curious about their viewpoint.
For instance, I recall one colleague I worked with that was very critical about attention to detail. They had a deep passion for delivering a quality product, but every time they criticized others, I would wince a bit. It took some time for me to step back and realize that this reminded me of a very critical family member. From that point, I had to remind myself that this was not the same situation and I tended not to react so strongly.
Meet with Curiosity
Once you have thought through facts and identified emotional triggers, it is time for you to meet with the other person. Typically, we will meet to “prove our point” and to show we were wronged. Instead, explain that the situation has caused some upset and you are curious about their perspective. I recommend trying the following protocol:
- List the facts you observed. See if they observed something different. Write them down where you both can see them (a shared drawing tool or collaborative editing document like Google Docs can help here).
- Point out your trigger points … carefully. You do not want to sound like you are accusing the other person, but you do want to point out how you interpreted the events. A typical statement to use is, “When X happened, I felt like Y occurred,” followed immediately with, “But what was your intent?” For instance, with the example of my quality-critical colleague, I may have said, “When you critiqued the details in my report on the security flaws of the software, I felt like my credibility was challenged. But, I may have jumped to a conclusion. Can you share your intent and concerns?”
- Behaviors will not change overnight, but once you both see how certain actions from one person trigger reactions from another, can you come up with a working agreement on how you can handle such situations in the future? For my quality-critical colleague, we agreed on some keywords to use in our conversations to help remind us of this conflict and how we might better navigate. For instance, by using “I wonder if others may have different perspectives?” I could signal to my colleague that he may need to slow down on making his point and be more aware of other perspectives.
Again, it's not easy to change behaviors. If your colleague continues to repeat their behaviors, you may need to meet with them again to repeat the protocol or remind them of the working agreement. It's normal, and don't be surprised if your colleague asks you to meet to review your working agreements. You may not have changed your own behavior sufficiently.
Use all communication tools possible
This is where it can be challenging but not impossible to meet in that “private room” with our distributed team members. First, you want to meet as soon as possible (within a day or two) to discuss the situation leading to the conflict. This allows you and them to clearly recall the facts and mindsets during the incidents to be discussed. It may be tempting to wait until you see them in person. But if that time is weeks or months away, don't wait. Instead, it's better to meet right away.
Also, be sure to meet over video. Even if you don't normally take video calls at work via Skype, Google Hangouts or some other tool, find a way to connect via video. You will need that visual channel to communicate the impact of the events upon you and to see the impact on them. You may even have to do this at home if your company blocks such video chat applications. I highly recommend this as the additional effort will show your colleague you want to resolve the conflict and not let it fester.
It's tempting to just pick up the phone and talk it out. Even I find myself forgetting this step from time to time. I recently made this mistake in resolving a conflict with another colleague by having a “quick call.” However, we found ourselves in a similar conflict the following week. We had not really used all of our communication tools to understand the impacts and trigger points. Video can be critical in communicating impact with remote team members.
How long will it take?
I am often asked, “How long does this take?” These approaches to resolve conflict can take a few hours to a few days. But if you work daily to apply the new working agreement and are seeing attempts to resolve the conflict and change behaviors from your colleague, you should proceed with these approaches.
However, a distributed agile team can move quickly. Strong interpersonal conflict can grind progress to a halt and many things can be put at risk. Do not let such conflicts go beyond one to two iterations. It does not just “go away,” and instead the conflict can occur in other ways if left unaddressed and continue to slow the team down.
If you are one of the team members in conflict, you may need to repeat the protocol discussion mentioned above once or twice. However, if you find that your colleague is not following your working agreements or you have met with them a couple of times with no observable attempts in changes in their behavior, it's time to escalate and to do so quickly.
When you are asked to facilitate a conflict
If you are in a leadership position and one or both team members in conflict come to you to resolve this conflict, you need to keep a few things in mind:
- First, it is difficult to facilitate conflict resolution if you are not well-practiced yourself. If you feel the conflict is beyond your experience, seek help from a colleague with this experience.
- If you feel you can proceed, ask the team member approaching you (by video) if they have had a conversation with the other person in the conflict. If not, explore how this could happen. You might even share this article and discuss it with them. If they have had that conversation with their colleague, you might still walk through this article to see if there is something they have not tried. Help the team member build conflict resolution skills.
- If the team member has made all reasonable attempts to resolve the issue and the timeframe has exceeded two iterations, it may be time to bring both team members together to discuss the impact of not resolving the conflict. This could be by video, but if one or more team members are senior, it's worth a couple of plane tickets to bring everyone together to reflect the serious nature of the impact.
While all situations have their own twists, I have found these approaches useful in navigating conflict in distributed teams. I hope they prove useful for you.
Some great references on navigating conflict on teams that have influenced me include:
- Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking with the Stakes are High by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler
- Coaching Agile Teams by Lyssa Adkins
- Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Reviews by Norm Kerth (Chapter 9 has some wonderful advice on how to handle these situations of facilitating conflict.)
A previous version was published on ProjectManagement.com March 27, 2017 by Mark Kilby.