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Resolving Conflict in the Virtual Workplace

“For good ideas and true innovation, you need human interaction, conflict, argument and debate.” - Margaret Heffernan. Conflict is an inevitable consequence of human interaction and innovation. It happens everywhere no matter the occasion or relationship between parties. The same is for every group or corporation: in due time, conflict eventually arises. What are the potential causes of conflict, and how has the virtual workplace inhibited or hindered conflict? Why is conflict resolution important and what are practical ways we can use conflict resolution virtually and in-person? Continue reading for insight into these questions.

Causes of conflict

According to the Northern Ireland Business’ article titled, “Managing Conflict,” there are several causes of workplace conflict. These include: “poor management, unfair treatment, unclear job roles, inadequate training, poor communication, poor work environment, lack of equal opportunities, bullying and harassment, and significant changes to products, charts appraisals or pay systems” (NIBuisnessInfo). They also state that “personality clashes, unrealistic needs or expectations, business values, unresolved workplace issues, and the increase in workload” can contribute to conflict development as well (NIBuisinessInfo). With these sources of conflict in mind, we can see that there is a common theme: miscommunication. For example, the “inadequate training” stated above begins with the failure to communicate the training needs to the coordinator or trainer. Furthermore, the example of “bullying and harassment” can be understood by an explanation of the failure to communicate company policies or social standards of the culture where the interaction took place.

If miscommunication can be seen as the root cause of conflict, how has miscommunication been affected by the increase of the virtual workplace? According to research from Quantum Workplace and Fierce Conversations, almost half of the surveyed individuals thought virtual or “technology-assisted communication” made miscommunication more likely to happen than in-person conversations. It can be inferred from this statistic that individuals in today’s virtual workplace have the potential to experience more miscommunication than in previous conditions.

This increase in miscommunication can potentially increase the amount of conflict in an organization. But why do most people believe that miscommunication is more likely to happen in virtual settings? There are two potential reasons.

Firstly, nonverbal communication is critically limited in most virtual communication platforms. Research done by Montoya-Weiss, Massey, and Song states that “nonverbal cues help regulate the flow of conversation, facility turn-taking, provide immediate feedback, and convey subtle meanings” (2001). The tone, or way an email, text, or instant message is read, is ultimately up to the reader. Recipients of virtual communications can either view messages in a positive or negative light depending on their own current mood, or the perceived mood of the sender since there are none of the normal nonverbal cues used during in-person communication (Montoya-Weiss et al., 2001). This can cause misunderstandings between coworkers communications and conflict to arise. Depending on the tone in which an email was read, a message that was meant to formally address minor issues in a project can be read as criticism or judgementalism. The absence of these nonverbal cues can severely impact the overall message received and/or sent between coworkers.

Secondly, Quantum Workplace and Fierce Conversations also found in their research that individuals fail to take responsibility for misunderstandings more so virtually than in-person (2017). The reasoning can be deduced down the anonymity that virtual communications provide. Without immediate consequences or understanding of miscommunications, individuals lose the sense of responsibility for their actions. This delay of reactions impacts the perpetrator’s realization that they both made a mistake and need to account for it. The combination of the lack of nonverbal cues as well as the failure to take responsibility for miscommunication presents an environment ripe for conflict.

Why stop conflict?

The question may seem trivial, but it’s worth asking. If Margaret Heffernan is right and conflict is necessary for innovation, then why stop it? Because conflict that is not resolved has the potential to create disunion in an organization, which ought to be unified for a goal or task. The Society of Human Resource Management states that conflict can result in, “work disruptions, decreased productivity, project failure, absenteeism, turnover and… stress.” While Margaret Heffernan may be right about the inevitability of conflict, it is important to note that conflict unresolved, left to fester and grow within an organization, can cause a sense of disfunction between employed groups. In the wise words of Aristotle:

“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” - Aristotle

The organization itself is greater than any subgroup (marketing, management, etc.) within the organization. Therefore in order to maximize profit, effectiveness, and impact, it is essential that all subgroups work together towards a communal goal, overcoming and confronting conflict along the way.

How to avoid conflict in the virtual workplace

1. Use collaborative communication

In the research done by Montoya-Weiss et al., one hundred seventy-five graduate students within the United States and Japan were split into five teams. These teams were randomized into two groups that were each given the same objective to complete: teams without a virtual communal discussion platform and teams with a communal discussion board.

Their research addressed five different types of conflict responses supported by previous research within the groups: “accommodation, competition, collaboration, and compromise” as well as “avoidance” (Montoya-Weiss et al., 2001). By introducing “Temporal coordination” software, which they define as a “structure imposed to intervene and direct the pattern timing and content of communication,” they believed that negative conflict responses such as “competitions” would decrease within groups (Montoya-Weiss et al., 2001). For the purpose of this article, we will refer to “temporal coordination” as communal communication which better describes the discussed platforms usage in the virtual workplace.

The presence of conflict responses was measured by the analysis of a questionnaire given to all participants after the experiment. Their findings suggest that the use of avoidance conflict management, which decreased the groups’ performance, was significantly lessened by communal communication boards. Because of these findings, we can deduce that communal conversation boards such as Google Docs, can significantly reduce the amount of conflict and misunderstandings in the workplace by providing a way for employees to communicate freely.

2. Confront conflict and misunderstandings purposefully

Author and CEO of Fierce, inc Susan Scott, claims that it is recommended that conflicts are resolved through planned conversation (2017). While most corporations are virtually located, these guidelines can still be followed with the use of virtual meeting rooms or video calls. These plans include a safe and confidential location as well as a specifically scheduled time (Scott, 2017). To place purpose in the conversation is to increase the value and importance of the confrontation that has to take place. Furthermore, it is recommended that you continue the time uninterrupted, with open-ended questions, and the declaration of commitments (Scott, 2017).

If business leaders go into confrontations and conversations without purpose or a plan, it is more likely for the issues at hand to be seen as last-minute and unimportant. If a leader doesn’t invest in the importance of the situation at hand, the employee is less likely to as well. Some guidelines are also given for the conversation itself. Susan Scott recommends a conversational guide to conflict resolution (see image) which involves both parties of the conflict (2017). This mode of communication allows both perspectives of the conflict to be heard and respected.

3. Embrace clarity

In order for employees to meet requested goals and deadlines, they must first know and understand the objective to be reached. In today’s modern economy time truly is money. Decisions and requests are often sent via instant messaging apps or emails. If these messages are not worded with clarity in mind, the overall goal of the message might be lost or misinterpreted causing a potential domino effect of unmet goals that leads to frustration or conflict amongst employees within an organization.

By taking the time to embrace clarity and ensure that emails, messages, and memos are worded with precise measurable outcomes, misinterpretation and miscommunication can be greatly decreased in a corporation, thus leading to less overall conflict. To aid in this, tools such as Active Listening can be used. In this form of listening, the recipient of the message is encouraged to communicate back to the sender what they believe their message was. This gives the sender the opportunity to correct misunderstandings as they happen (What is Active Listening, 2017).

What does it all mean?

While conflict is an essential aspect of innovation, it also can be harmful to an organization if not addressed properly. The overarching cause of conflict can be summarized as miscommunication, which most post people believe is more likely to happen in the virtual workplace.

To avoid miscommunication and confront present or developing conflicts, it is recommended that business leaders give their virtual employees a mode of collaborative communication. This allows employees to communicate with one another in a group-monitored board allowing employees to revisit and clarify communications as needed. Business leaders are also recommended to confront conflict head-on using conversational confrontations. By directly discussing conflict, employers can avoid the potential negative effects such as decreased rate of productivity and a stressful work environment, while allowing both sides of the conflict to share their perspectives.

Lastly, employers are encouraged to embrace clarity. By taking the time to ensure that emails, messages, and memos are clearly worded and that employees understand what their expected goals are, miscommunication can be avoided thus reducing the amount of conflict in the workplace.


NIBuinessInfo, Managing conflict. Causes of conflict in the workplace.,to%20carry%20out%20childcare%20responsibilities.

Quantum Workplace, & Fierce Conversations, The State of Miscommunication. (2017)

Scott, S. (2017). Fierce conversations: achieving success at work & in life, one conversation at a time. Piatkus.

What is Active Listening? United States Institute of Peace. (2017, April 17).

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