07 jun 4 Ways to Decrease Conflict Within Global Teams
4 Ways to Decrease Conflict Within Global Teams
And yet in my research, I’ve seen plenty of highly functional global teams that don’t succumb to these pressures. They act as a unit, give one another the benefit of the doubt when things go wrong, and resolve issues promptly and constructively. There are four key things that characterize these distinct teams.
First, team members aren’t competing for their jobs. Every single team I’ve ever studied, in which people at one location felt threatened, was riddled with conflict. Members worried about losing their jobs and couldn’t bring themselves to build strong relationships with team members from across the ocean. In one U.S.-India team that Catherine Cramton and I studied, the U.S. team members were terrified that the work, and thus their jobs, would be transferred to India. As a consequence, they resisted collaborating with their Indian coworkers. Even during a face-to-face visit at the U.S. site, the Americans kept the Indians at arms length. Under these circumstances, it’s tough to build the rapport and trust that prevents conflict. Making sure that everyone on the team has a clear role and understands others’ distinctive contributions helps. Sometimes though, jobs aregoing away. In those cases, conflict may be inevitable, but can be mitigated somewhat by being forthright about the transition plan and timeline. In the face of a concrete plan, there’s less of a reason to compete with distant team members.
Second, harmonious teams have a shared identity. They feel like they’re “all in it together” and have a common vision not only for what they can achieve, but the important role each location plays in their success. In a study of global R&D teams, Mark Mortensen and I found that a shared identity significantly reduced conflict. One of the leaders described a team that had an enormous amount of tension until the manager created what he called a “ring fence” or boundary around the team that insulated it from external pressures, differentiating them from other teams, and creating a strong sense of the team and their mission. Another team from Catherine Cramton’s and my study held extended working sessions over video between the U.S. and Germany, creating the sense of being side by side as a unified team. These teams occasionally had conflict, but gave one another the benefit of the doubt and resolved conflict swiftly.
Third, these teams share a similar context or at least an understanding of their contextual differences. Mark Mortensen and I asked team members the extent to which their work tools or processes were incompatible, priorities were different, and information about what others were doing was incomplete. When differences were high and information incomplete, conflict soared. This effect was stronger when the team was more distributed.
The challenge on global teams is that the contexts are different — that’s unavoidable. But we found that as long as team members understand what is different, they’re less likely to blame each other for incompatibilities. One way to foster that understanding is to encourage and support team members (not just managers) to visit other locations and, importantly, not only headquarters. Catherine Cramton and I found that site visits were a powerful way to understand how processes and practices varied and build rapport that endured long after the travelers returned home.
Finally, informal, unplanned communication dramatically reduces conflict. When team members pick up the phone, chat or text one another outside of scheduled meetings, and share information on what’s going on — that helps to convey information about processes and how they might be changing, build rapport, and reinforce a shared identity. The teams that had at least one person initiating contact with distant team members on a regular basis had a more casual, fluid interaction and could deal with issues that arose without conflict spinning out of control. Again, this effect was stronger — interpersonal conflict went down — when the teams were distributed across more work sites.
Some argue that conflict is good, especially conflict that is focused on the task, not the people.That’s still under debate, but evidence shows that conflict is particularly destructive for global teams. It is too hard to detect, too hard to resolve, and too hard to recover from. These four approaches help eliminate conflict before it derails the team.
Source: HBR.org / Pamela Hinds