Navigating Conflict in Remote Teams

Having hard conversations is hard.

Working remotely makes them that much more difficult. You can’t casually slip in some feedback while in the kitchenette or while you are both in a conference room before a meeting. In-person you can always laugh or be kind to people and sometimes that is enough to smooth over residual issues. Add to all of this that our culture equates disagreements with confrontation and you have some real challenges when your team is working remotely. As a manager, you are likely left to your own devices to figure out how to navigate conflict in this new environment, without much to go on.

Working remotely requires explicit intent, often scheduled conversations, and direct communication. While that can feel uncomfortable for those used to navigating conflicts more intuitively, over time addressing conflict intentionally and directly can dramatically improve your team culture, if you work at it. The transparency of a lot of digital collaboration reduces passive-aggressiveness while increasing trust. Transparency, if managed well, helps teams to become more comfortable and less defensive about differences of opinion, which increases psychological safety, quality, and innovation.

How to get there, however, is not as straightforward. I have worked and managed remotely to varying degrees since the 1990s. It has helped me grow tremendously as a leader but, like all growth, it did not come without struggle. In this post, I will share some of my hard-won lessons.

Strengthen Trust Before You Need It

In my twenties, while living in Washington, D.C., I was a mentor to an elementary school girl. Children who grow up with instability are understandably wary of believing anything they are told. My mentee was no different; she was a lovely child but hard to get to know. It required months of helping her with homework, taking her to museums and parks, and just being together until she would share anything personal. I realized that I had to convince her beyond any doubt that I cared about her and supporting her was my only goal. Until she believed that I was on her side, there wasn’t anything I could say that she would really believe, even praise and certainly not suggestions. While she might have been a bit more obviously protective of herself than others, everyone has the same needs and requirements. People must believe you only want the best for them before they will believe and act on your input. If you don’t put in the work to prove you care, you will have minimal influence over their behaviors and work.

You might be thinking, “that is not true, even though I don’t have deep relationships with my team members when I give them feedback, it is always addressed.” What you are probably seeing is the impact of power differentials on transactional tasks. Feedback when combined with power, tends to get results but often it is incorporated exactly as requested without further thought. That dynamic tends to develop into a cycle of micro-management. In this scenario, people do the minimum needed but they won’t go out of their way to reflect, learn, question, challenge, or improve. If the work you and your team do is fairly standardized and employees are effectively production capacity, this might be fine. If however, your team is doing ambiguous, creative, complex, relational, or nuanced work this box-checking approach will produce mediocre results. It might look good superficially but probably won’t change anything or get anyone excited.

As market speed increases, all organizations rely more and more on innovation. Innovation excellence requires that employees take initiative, care about their work, and are curious. The quality of the output is less connected to the time invested and more connected to how creatively employees think about and pursue solutions. That requires employees that try, fail, seek, consider, and collaborate – things that cannot be standardized and that employees must be motivated to do and they need to feel like it matters. They need their colleagues to care.

Building Trusting Work Relationships

Trusted, caring relationships are different skills than management has required in the past. Being friendly is imperative because it reduces misunderstandings and over-reactions that often escalate into conflict and creates space for people to challenge you. The great news is that building trusting work relationships also creates psychological safety. That safety allows people to be more creative, experimental, and honest; all of which improves the productivity of your team. It’s a win-win-win approach for you, your colleagues, the organization.

Building trusting relationships with those who report to you, however, requires boundaries. Work relationships between supervisors and staff have limits and recognizing the power differential is critical; you are not their peer and you have actual or perceived control over their success regardless of whether you feel that way. It’s why there are policies prohibiting romantic relationships between managers and their direct reports. Trusting relationships in a supervisor/direct report context is bounded by the work to be done and the expertise, care, and perspective to do it. Trust in fashion advice is irrelevant but general personal respect is important.

Learning where the line is between trusting work relationships and abusive or biased personal relationships is critical – and ambiguous. Those with more social or structural power are often oblivious to the potential for abuses of power because they are never on the vulnerable side of the relationship. Like other things, remote relationships require explicit effort and self-awareness. Managers need to invest in self-awareness, seek to understand how they are perceived by others, and assess implications on work relationships. As a supervisor, some relational distance is required because of these power dynamics. It doesn’t follow that the relationships have to be cold, impersonal, or transactional but chummy relationships often produce favoritism or abuse. If you are unsure about that relational line or how you are perceived, ask peers who can be honest with you or seek out appropriate advisors. Doing this work will go a long way to help team members feel relaxed and secure, knowing they don’t have to navigate unwanted intrusions into their personal lives. It is the foundation of a trusting work relationship.

Like any good relationship, trusting work relationships require regular effort. When working remotely, this effort needs to be explicit. Without this regular effort, trust will degrade slowly and then more quickly. After two years of the pandemic, many managers are finding their teams suddenly frayed and not sure why. It is likely because, in the office, we take casual opportunities to connect for granted and have not replaced those opportunities in the virtual workplace.

Here are some of the techniques I have used to maintain connection and trust:

  • Regularly scheduled, unstructured catch-up calls with each team member.
  • Team conversations about how well the teams’ routines are working and what could be improved.
  • Regular requests for feedback about how I could improve.
  • An explicit place online to regularly praise, encourage, and celebrate people.
  • Remote social hours, games, learning opportunites, or watch parties just for fun.
  • Spaces to share pet photoes, recipes, music or other hobbies shared by team members.
  • A #FlipThatShit space to give people a place to help them reframe challenges as opportunities.
  • Spending time in meetings to just chat, like one might in an office hallway before a meeting.
  • A habit of working out loud to share what I am working on, prioritizing, and thinking about.

Because distributed teams lack office conference rooms, hallways, and cafeterias these spaces need to be created for team members to ‘run into’ each other and connect in low-pressure and fun ways. Those interactions will make it much easier for everyone to resolve conflicts and feel comfortable sharing their perspectives.

Get Comfortable Discussing Feelings

Yes, really but no, not like that.

Feelings are not reserved for personal relationships. Feelings are early warning signals of issues and opportunities and they can hinder progress or accelerate it. Hidden feelings about work increase wasted time and hide business risk. Feelings create productivity boosts or road bumps. Why wouldn’t you want to acknowledge, understand, and influence feelings in a work setting?

If people are excited, projects often rapidly accelerate. If team members are frustrated or angry, they will likely drag their feet, spin their wheels, and take much longer to complete tasks. Knowing how colleagues are really feeling will provide you with great insight into the most promising opportunities. If you have created trusting relationships and people feel safe to be authentic, these feelings are much easier to accurately assess – it’s a critical tool in managing remote teams.

Talking about feelings is also a great approach to conflict resolution. The beautiful thing about feelings is that they cannot be contradicted; no one can argue about how someone else feels. Communicating issues in the context of feelings give others space to feel differently without directly contradicting a colleague. Using this technique often quickly surfaces the root cause of the conflict because it prompts a conversation (why do you feel that way?) instead of an argument (yes it is/not it’s not). Keeping conflicts conversational helps people understand different perspectives and their validity, which increases the ability to compromise. The trick to the effectiveness of this approach is talking about feelings in a neutral, analytical tone that validates them as a perfectly logical and important part of the issue but does not devolve into emotional manipulation.

Talking about feelings is also a great project management tool. Often when something is clearly not working the impulse of managers is to swoop in and fix it by assigning it to someone else or micro-managing. The problem is that this approach deflates the person who was already struggling, ensuring that their productivity declines. However, if you ask someone who is struggling how they are feeling about different parts of a project, most of the time (if they trust you) they will self-report the issue and ask for help – or at least admit they are struggling. As their manager, this gives you an invitation to offer options, like asking a team member to collaborate, identifying external expertise and resources, or personally coaching them through the task. The result? The person who was struggling now feels supported and encouraged, which lifts their dread and re-energizes them. This is such a tiny difference in approach but it yields a huge difference in morale and productivity because it doesn’t take away a person’s power and control.

I explicitly ask about feelings in the following situations:

  • During regular catch-ups with team members.
  • When an issue is brewing between team members.
  • When there is a problem on a project.
  • During project status requests or meetings.
  • When someone comes to me with a complaint.

Recently, someone who was once a teammate of mine was saying how they struggled with touchy-feely coaching and that they appreciated how matter-of-fact I was. This made me smile because it is possible – and even preferable – to use this technique without being too emotive.

Seize the Moment

No one ever wants to hear their supervisor say ‘we need to talk.’ It is ominous and piques anxiety.

However, as a manager with a distributed team, how do you find time to talk to a team member without telling them you would like to talk? The request alone makes the conversation a big deal regardless of how small the feedback is that you would like to give them. You can certainly, in a more casual way, ask if they have a minute to chat without scheduling it but if it’s something relatively small, it still seems overblown. Anxiety makes feedback all but worthless because it puts people in a protective and defensive mode. How do you give remote team members feedback in a way that feels low-key? No small challenge.
One of the reasons to have regularly scheduled open-ended conversations with team members is for exactly this reason; to create a space where you are already catching up on a range of things. In that situation, throwing in a little feedback doesn’t feel so momentous and is more likely to be heard and effective. However, depending on how often these meetings happen, it can be really disconnected from the original issue. What I have found is that it is most effective to give feedback immediately as part of the conversation, because once things have moved on, coming back to it necessarily makes the feedback seem more consequential than it often is. Giving immediate feedback, however, requires quick thinking and can be dicey if you don’t have a smooth way to provide it in a way that won’t feel like a public criticism. Finding some phrasing for this kind of feedback is critical and I often return to feelings and modifiers. I say things like, “I feel like that has too much color” or, “from my perspective that’s too bright, would something softer work?” Women are often chastised for using this kind of soft language but it is much more likely to leave others with their sense of power and control intact. That respect for their autonomy maintains a trusting relationship, and because it comes with trust, the feedback is much more likely to be heard and absorbed.

Once a team gets more comfortable with feedback in general and you have normed non-judgmental ways of discussing differences and resolving conflict, you can start encouraging team members to give each other feedback in shared team channels. By making feedback the norm rather than the exception it lowers its perceived risk. As the culture of the team becomes more comfortable sharing their perspectives, feelings, and feedback directly, while also explicitly taking time to celebrate and connect frequently, managing the team and resolving conflict become almost easy because the teams’ emotional, communication, and negotiations muscles have improved.

I grew up as a people pleaser who was conflict avoidant. I assumed conflict required confrontation and it often felt like personal criticism. The process of learning to be open to feedback and then helping others get comfortable with differences has been a long journey. One of the biggest challenges I had to overcome was learning how to be compassionate with myself, which then allowed me to be compassionate with others.
We may all be adults. We may have huge responsibilities. But the truth is we are all just making it up as we go along. The best outcome is that we learn something along the way.

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