Managing conflict while working remotely
Updated: Jan 11
Have you noticed different work-related conflict since you’ve been doing your job remotely? Maybe things don’t seem as smooth as they once were between everyone on the team?
It shouldn’t be surprising. When you don’t interact with your coworkers regularly (and especially in person), misunderstandings can happen—and those misunderstandings can lead to conflict. Don’t just take my word for it. Lindred Greer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, stated in her research that disagreements among remote team members are more frequent and more difficult to resolve than among an onsite team. In fact, online conflicts tend to be more personal and emotionally charged and more likely to escalate.
In this blog, I’ll share three steps to help resolve the conflicts that can arise when we are all working remotely.
So, why the increase in conflict when working remote?
A number of reasons.
Remote work can become isolating—and when you’re isolated, the flow of information to you can seem uneven. When you’re physically in an office environment, your day is filled with dozens of “micro engagements.” For example, before the pandemic transitioned you to remote work, how many times a day did you walk to a colleague’s office down the hall to ask a quick question or get some clarification about a project? Ever find yourself solving a problem with a co-worker while in the company kitchen grabbing coffee? This spontaneous and ongoing banter builds community and it diffuses tension.
Uneven communication contributes to uncertainty. It can feel like changes that affect your work are taking place without your input. Uncertainty can lead to insecurity which breeds anxiety. Mistrust leads to misperception. We begin to make assumptions about intentions and actions of others.
Irritations also tend to be left to fester longer when we work remotely. For example, if someone said something that annoyed you during the morning stand-up, passing that person in the hall later that afternoon offers a casual opportunity to clarify. Maybe your coworker apologizes—and or explains it was all a misunderstanding.
So, what to do we? How can we manage conflict more productively in the remote workplace?
First, get out of brain hijack
Those of you who read this blog regularly will notice that I extol the values of responding, not reacting. When you feel you’ve been misunderstood or maligned, our natural reaction is to become defensive—even angry. We can blame our prehistoric forebears for this. It’s called the stress response—or more commonly flight-or-flight. It also goes by the term brain hijack. Bottom line, you’re not thinking straight when you’re upset because the blood is leaving your brain and flowing into your arms and legs.
Before approaching any conflict situation, you need to get centered, get calm. One way to do this is to simply remove yourself from the situation—actually get away from the conflict. That may not be possible in the middle of a team video meeting. But as soon as you can, get to some place quiet, breathe and calm your brain so that you can respond thoughtfully instead of reacting emotionally.
Secondly, assume ignorance, not malice
Referring back to Professor Greer’s research, because virtual communication is often impersonal, “it encourages a back and forth that escalates more quickly than during in-person encounters. People are more likely to be less inhibited, they are more likely to be aggressive, and they are more likely to say opinions that could spark very negative reactions in other people.”
Once you’ve calmed yourself, consider exactly what is causing the conflict. Is it merely a lack of communication? Has someone stomped on your hot button in an overt way or could this be a misunderstanding? Get clear and own your contribution (if there is one) before blaming others. You may find you can literally diffuse the conflict right here.
Still questioning the other person’s motive? Here is where you can apply the rule of thumb otherwise known as Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by ignorance.
Hanlon’s Razor reminds us not to assume the worst intention in the actions of others. It helps us see the world in a more positive light and cease negative assumptions. Assuming the best allows us to give people the benefit of the doubt and demonstrate empathy. Not everyone is out to get you!
For example, let’s imagine you get an email from a co-worker saying that they feel pressured about something. Pressured? What in the world is that supposed to mean? I’m doing all the work! Your fingers are itching to send back a scathing reply.
The most common outcome of conversations is misunderstanding. Ask yourself if there is any possibility that the conflict (and subsequent high emotion) has arisen because of your own assumptions about what that email meant. Be willing to change your mind. Be open to a different intention or meaning.
But let’s say you still need to be sure. You need clarification. That takes us to the third step.
When in doubt, pick up the phone
Electronic communication isn’t as effective as face-to-face communication. Studies show that the words we use constitute only 7% of our communication. The rest is tone and body language. It makes sense then that texting and email are grossly inadequate to fully communicate with one another.
Whenever you find yourself getting triggered by an email, or angered by a text, don’t write or text back. Instead, schedule a one-on-one communication. Meet person-to-person either on the phone or on a video call (which is the best venue, by the way, because it incorporates words, tone and body language).
The success of this video or phone chat will be determined by your attitude. Seek first to understand. Have empathy.
Ask clarifying questions to ensure you understand the other points of view. A good way to start is to avoid putting it on them and instead, use “I” statements and lean in. For example, say, “I’m confused about the email I received. Can you clarify what you meant?” or “When you say pressured, what do you mean? Could you give me some examples?”
Be transparent. Let them know what is bothering you. Give them examples from your perspective. When they answer, listen. Really listen. It’s called Active Listening. Paraphrase what you hear as you understand it and check whether this is what they really meant.
Conflict can arise more quickly and be more of a challenge when we are all working remotely. But it’s not insurmountable. Regardless of whether you work in an office or are connecting remotely to your colleagues, you can turn conflict into an opportunity to build trust and collaboration. When feeling isolated or triggered, remember to calm yourself, assume good intentions and take the initiative to have a one-on-one video or phone chat to get the clarification needed to resolve the misunderstanding.
Want a great formula for resolving conflict? See: R.I.S.K. is the key to resolving conflict productively.
You CAN build your conflict resolution and management skills. Contact us for information on our leadership workshop, The You Turn: from Conflict to Collaboration. This online class will provide you the insight and skill-building you need to resolve conflict quickly and build strong, trusting relationships.