Managing Conflict in Remote Teams

7 minutes, 7 links


Updated March 23, 2023

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Resolving conflict between team members (and across teams) is a classic responsibility for managers, and the challenges are exaggerated on distributed teams due to distance and degraded emotional information from asynchronous, written communication. The solutions, too, are not necessarily as straightforward as they would be in an office setting.

James O’Toole and Warren Bennis describe observable candor as a foundation of successful teamwork. It is the degree to which “people have access to relevant, timely, and valid information.” Without it, teams are simply less effective. Unfortunately, remote teams are especially ineffective at frank conversations: HBR research shows that in dispersed groups, leaders have to actively push team members to be candid with each other.

In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick M. Lencioni defines “artificial harmony” as the lack of “passionate, unfiltered debate around issues of importance to the team.” Teams may avoid passionate debate in an effort to stay conflict; back-channeling is often the result.

Back-channeling is a secondary conversation that happens to the side, or after, a primary conversation. In a work context, this manifests when sub-groups either talk separately via chat or other text mechanisms during a meeting, or meet separately afterwards to discuss issues in semi-private spaces, because they are unable to have productive conversations as a group.

There are a few ways to help managers predict and prevent these kinds of issues within remote teams.

Conflict Profiling

Conflict profiling is a method for evaluating the manner in which individuals on a team react to conflict.

In a conflict-profiling exercise, team members all answer a set of questions during a video meeting. These answers can then be kept on a shared document to reference later.

  • How normal is conflict for you?

  • How comfortable are you with “lively debate” and pushback?

  • What do you need to feel comfortable with productive conflict?

This helps uncover differences in teammates’ communication styles. People might assume that everyone has the same appetite for lively debates as they do, and feel shame or shock when their excited pushback is met with tense withdrawal.

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Knowing who does and doesn’t feel naturally comfortable with conflict, and specifically what each person needs to feel safe when expressing or hearing disagreement, means that positive conflict is more likely to occur and be handled productively, reducing fears that disagreement or new ideas pose a high relationship risk.

dangerThe idea that everyone should feel psychologically safe to disagree can be used to defend unacceptable behavior and verbal harassment. Healthy conflict and psychological safety emphatically do not apply to violations of a company’s code of conduct, hate speech, or conflict that marginalizes people or groups. No one should feel encouraged by company policy to express racist, sexist, transphobic or otherwise bigoted views in the workplace. This conflict-norming advice applies to the discussion of ideas that do not incite harm to others.

As a manager, you may also need to help individuals manage conflict when it impacts their ability to work together. In an office setting, getting people together physically can often resolve a conflict due to misunderstanding or built-up reactions to misaligned expectations. In a Twitter thread, Textio CEO Kieran Snyder detailed how a tense, difficult relationship with a co-worker changed once they were able to get together for lunch:

We had a very human conversation that day about why our work partnership was not working. I found it easier to give and receive feedback than I ever had in the office. I was able to hear where he was coming from, and felt more open to share in return.*

When this kind of in-person meeting to resolve conflict isn’t possible, team members will need alternate approaches, and strong encouragement from their manager to make it happen. This could include talking on the phone while each person takes a walk outside, or switching to longform written communication where each party gets a chance to think deeply about the conflict and express their feelings carefully. Other approaches can include more specific directives for how these conversations are conducted, like a manager instructing the parties to use the hedgehog method.

The Hedgehog Method

Ben Erez, a Product Manager for design tool Abstract, advocates for using the “hedgehog method”*discussing difficult situations or giving feedback while using “I” statements, that frame the discussion in terms of the feelings, beliefs, and values of the person speaking, instead of placing blame or fault on the other person or people involved. The method follows a set format:

  • State your honest intention. “I would like to improve how we partner on…”

  • Share what you observed. “I noticed that when we started this project…”

  • Share your interpretation. “I ended up feeling… because…”

  • Ask for the other perspective. “How did you take that?”

  • Generate a solution. “What can we do better next time?”

Erez and team found that the “emotion and interpretation parts are critical, and combine to open a two-way door to discuss the feedback and come up with a collaborative plan for moving forward together constructively. It’s not accusatory, so the conversation doesn’t deteriorate into any kind of finger-pointing.”

Crucial Conversations Methods

The Hedgehog method echoes key points in Crucial Conversations, with the principle “Work On Me First, Us Second.” A few tactics remote team members can use from their approach include:

  • Stick to the facts. “Abandon your absolute certainty by distinguishing between hard facts and your invented story.”

  • Keep your shared goals front and center. Establish something both people care about: “Mutual purpose means that others perceive that you’re working toward a common outcome in a conversation, that you care about their goals, interests, and values. And vice versa.”

  • Avoid the “Fool’s Choice.” Crucial Conversations defines this as framing things in terms of either/or choices when there are more than two options. “Watch to see if you’re telling yourself that you must choose between peace and honesty, between winning and losing, and so on.”

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