3 Tips to Encourage Healthy Conflict in Your Remote Team

Team Conflict RiskI was asked to work with a virtual team in the field of drug development at a major pharmaceutical firm. The team members were missing project timelines and overspending their budget. The team included top performers from many disciplines and represented 12 countries in Asia, America, Europe, and Africa.

When I observed the team calls, it was noticeable that the group had a very positive and sociable climate. Team members were very polite and most of the conversation sounded like “Yes, yes, thank you, good idea.”  It was quickly clear, though, that individuals were not surfacing concerns or proposing alternative approaches.  As a result, the team was missing out on the benefits of diverse thinking and the new ideas that can result when team members promote different points of view.

In the course of the team intervention, we discussed how their polite culture, though positive in many ways, was impacting honest information sharing and effective decision making.

Together we created a strategy to pressure test all decisions and make sure that opposing points of view were surfaced. To facilitate this, the group would make a “temporary” decision, as they had done before. Then for the next 15 minutes, each team member was required to brainstorm every possible reason the decision might not be a good one. Questions such as “Who else in the organization will not like the decision?” “What could possibly go wrong?” and“What potential unintended consequences might result?” helped to identify possible objections and weak spots.

After exploring the pressure test list, the team would change or modify the decision, confident that all information available had been factored in.

Team decision making dramatically improved as a result of this strategy.  When I revisited the team two months later, many team members privately thanked me for making the sharing of critical thoughts part of their team responsibility.

Leveraging Diversity in Your Teams

Many virtual teams, like this one, struggle to leverage the diversity of their team members for effectiveness. Most often, it’s because people have a natural tendency to avoid conflict and suppress respectful and healthy differences of opinion. A virtual setting only adds to the problem, as it creates even more of a challenge to break in and suggest an opposing point of view. Without the body language clues and the information relationship that happens face to face, the leader and the team often do not realize what is missing.

Here are three ways to ensure your virtual team truly leverages the value that diversity brings.

  1. Create team agreements that encourage a healthy conflict of ideas.  Consider using the pressure test format, or something similar, to create a structure for surfacing concerns and testing alternatives. Another great technique I often recommend is Edward de Bono’s “Six Hats” thinking process. You can learn more through his book Six Thinking Hats.
  2. Reward clear and gentle truth telling.  Demonstrate this behavior as a team leader and acknowledge others when they do so.  This will encourage team members to speak up about important issues, particularly when it is uncomfortable.
  3. Pay close attention and address personal conflict immediately.  It’s important to make a clear distinction between personal conflict (a disagreement between people) and idea conflict (a difference of opinion or new idea). Ensuring you have a conflict of ideas without personal conflict takes emotional intelligence and a clear focus on team dynamics.

Great virtual teams leverage their diversity by bringing together the best thinking across organizations, specialties, and cultures. Use these tips to ensure your team has more healthy conflict and better results.

About the author

Carmela Sperlazza Southers is a senior consulting partner with The Ken Blanchard Companies who specializes in increasing organizational, team, and leader effectiveness in the virtual work world.

4 thoughts on “3 Tips to Encourage Healthy Conflict in Your Remote Team

  1. Nice post Carmela. I would also add that one of the challenges of virtual teams is they never get time to spend with each other to really get to know each other. The better we understand each other the more likely we are to trust the intent of someone when a conflicting point is stated.

    What I love about what you did with this team is that you got them to all participate in the conflict, which will lead to the buy-in of the decisions regardless of whether or not they agree with the decision.
    Mike Rogers

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