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Contact John Wyzalek editor of IT Performance Improvement.

 

Eight Steps for Facilitating Constructive Conflict, Virtually

Nancy Settle-Murphy

Your team is under pressure to make a decision that will make or break your big project. You are shocked when all of your colleagues agree to what you believe will be a disastrous decision. When you regain your powers of speech, everyone is waiting for you to weigh in. (Thankfully, no one can read your body language, since everyone has dialed in for this meeting.) Do you dare voice an opposing opinion at this point, or do you just sigh and let it go, hoping that people will eventually see the light before too much damage can be done?

Well, it depends. If your team has a protocol for engaging in a healthy debate, you might speak your mind. If dissenting views are typically disregarded, or if people who challenge the status quo are branded as negative naysayers, you'll probably bite your tongue. As virtual team leaders, we need to find ways to make it safe for people to disagree, debate and yes, sometimes to argue. As Ron Ashkenas and Lisa Bodell point out in a recent HBR blog, finding the right balance between the need to deal with conflict and the instinct to avoid it is one of the toughest challenges that managers face. Two major forces conspire against those who work virtually: Lack of time (we're always rushing through our calls because we have so few opportunities to meet in real-time) and the absence of visual cues, which reveal thoughts and feelings that often belie our spoken words. In this article, I offer some ideas for enabling and encouraging divergent perspectives, especially when it comes to making momentous and difficult decisions in a virtual world.

  • Start every conversation with some kind of a connection. Invite people to say why they feel their participation is important and what this decision will mean for them. This helps all team members understand the decision and its implications from different lenses. Set the stage by going first, saying something like: "I feel it's important that we hear about the likely impact of this decision from all perspectives before we decide which way to go. I'm concerned that if we rush through this conversation, we risk making a decision based on incomplete information." Then invite each participant to follow suit. Depending on the conferencing system you're using, you can ask people to raise a hand or press 1 on the telephone keypad when they're ready to share. If the available time is extraordinarily tight, consider opening a virtual conference area where participants can have a similar conversation prior to the real-time meeting.
  • Build trust early and often. Important conversations typically have relatively few participants, especially in a virtual world, where people tend to tune out easily when they have to wait a long time to get a word in. If your team numbers more than eight people, you can assign breakout groups in advance, giving participants a chance to build relationships and cultivate trust. You might ask them to share their answers to a question that requires a high degree of self-disclosure, such as: What is the best thing that can happen if we decide one way or another? The worst? What assumptions seem important to validate? Why is this decision so important to each of us personally? To our organizations? Our project? Our team? The small groups may report out their discussion highlights in an online conference area prior to the discussion, or in real-time with the whole team.
  • Lay down ground rules to encourage open sharing. In addition to some of the ground rules you may usually use for your virtual meetings, discussions that are likely to be emotional or contentious warrant special ground rules. Suggest some of your own, and ask team members for their ideas as well. Examples: All opinions are valid and valued, regardless of our titles, roles, or tenure. Assume you do not have all the answers. Brevity and clarity increase shared understanding. Share the air - give everyone an opportunity to speak. Balance advocacy with inquiry—state your views and remain curious about others'. Share your thinking—help us understand your opinion. Passing is allowed. Pause frequently to invite others to step into the conversation. It can be helpful to send or post these ground rules in advance, asking others to add theirs if they like, and then to restate them at the start of the conversation.
  • Give people a true opportunity to express doubts and reservations. Plan your agenda with the assumption that people will have opinions, questions, and doubts, rather than assuming everyone will cheerfully agree. This means allocating sufficient time in your agenda for the needed discussions. (Not all decisions are created equal. You may need just a few minutes to decide the best day for your next face-to-face meeting, but deciding whether to implement the proposed success metrics deserves a rich discussion.) Regardless of the available time, some people will be reticent to express opposing views out loud. Creating a shared online space where people can offer opinions and related assumptions in advance of your meeting may make it easier for people to express their views. Consider whether anonymity will help spur greater openness. Sometimes it helps to contact one or two people in advance and ask them to start off the conversation, especially if their opinions are likely to be in the minority.
  • Be prepared with powerful questions to elicit candid opinions more easily. Encourage honest thoughts and feelings with carefully-worded questions that invite open dialogue. So instead of asking: "Anyone not on board with Jen's proposal?" Try something like: "I realize that this proposal will affect some of us profoundly. At the same time, we know that there are many potential benefits. I'd like ask each of you, if we were to implement this proposal, what must go exceptionally well for us to succeed by all measures?" Here again you can ask participants to signal when they're ready to speak, using their keyboard or keypad. Or you can simply start with your first volunteer and then go around the virtual table until each has contributed. (People can pass until they're ready to speak.) The key is to invite expressions of doubts and concerns in a way that makes it safe, and to unearth potential roadblocks as early as possible, should you go through with this proposal.
  • Recognize real dissent when you hear it. Distinguish between those expressing genuine doubts and reservations and those expressing dissent in inauthentic ways, such as: Denial ("The present is good enough, apart from a few minor tweaks"), rebellion ("I don't like being led around by others, even if I really may agree"), or resignation ("I will agree if I must, but I sure won't participate in implementing this decision!"). Authentic dissent doesn't include blaming others or complaining about the past. When people express personal doubts and concerns, dissent is more authentic and constructive. When you detect signs of denial, rebellion or resignation lurking beneath the spoken words, be prepared to validate your observations aloud. Example: "Perry, I'm curious. I have a feeling that you might have some unspoken reservations about this proposal." (Pause for validation.) "Would you mind telling me more?" If Perry declines to respond, move on. The key is to make it easy for people to express contrary views in a way that invites learning and discussion.
  • Don't punish those who disagree. I must confess that as a meeting facilitator, I may have lost patience once or twice with that one hold-out who won't go along with everyone else, especially when she's the only one standing preventing us from ending this meeting. It can be sorely tempting to bypass her when it comes to soliciting opinions or to dismiss her concerns with a terse: "Thanks for sharing" before turning to others. In a virtual setting, people can hear sarcasm and frustration, even though they may not see your eyes rolling or arms crossed. So when someone offers a different viewpoint, use your tone of your voice and choice of words to convey true curiosity and spur a productive discussion. Example: "Jane, thanks for being courageous enough to express your viewpoint. Tell me more. Why is this important to you?" This way, Jane has an opportunity to explain her rationale and assumptions without feeling defensive or threatened. Approaching this type of dissent with curiosity often leads to a discussion where team members realize they are more in alignment than previously imagined.
  • Know when it's time to close the discussion. Despite the most carefully-laid plans for a healthy discussion of differences, sometimes people will remain miles apart (literally and figuratively). Have a plan B ready to go, just in case, and share it right up front. Options might include scheduling another meeting after gathering more information, empowering someone to make the final decision afterwards, convening a sub team to hash out differences and propose a compromise, or identifying which differences are show-stoppers and agreeing on how best to close the gap. In a world where back-to-back meetings are often the norm, we don't want to leave important discussions hanging without a resolution. We need a clear plan in place to get there.

While unbridled conflict can create a toxic atmosphere, say HBR blog authors Ashkenas and Bodell, insufficient conflict can be just as damaging, since creative ideas and better ways of getting things done often stem from constructive conflict. In fact, the ability to have the kind of rigorous discussions where ideas are challenged, dissenting viewpoints are shared, and concerns are surfaced is a hallmark of a truly strong team (as well as a credible, effective leader). So instead of hoping that everyone will happily share the same opinions, it's best to deliberately plan for a healthy discussion where people can demonstrate their best critical thinking skills. Attaining alignment may take more time, but implementation will follow far more quickly.

Read more IT Performance Improvement

About the Author

Nancy Settle-Murphy, founder and principal consultant of Guided Insights, draws on an eclectic and varied combination of skills and expertise. She wears many hats, depending on the challenges she is helping clients to solve. She acts as meeting facilitator, virtual collaboration coach, change management leader, workshop designer, cross-cultural trainer, communications strategist and organizational development consultant. She is the author of the book Leading Effective Virtual Teams: Overcoming Time and Distance to Achieve Exceptional Results.