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Conflict and Virtual Teams
Terri L. Griffith
Leavey School of Business
Santa Clara University
St. Joseph’s Hall #116
500 El Camino Real
Santa Clara, CA 95053
Elizabeth A. Mannix
Johnson Graduate School of Management
Ithaca, NY 14853
Margaret A. Neale
Graduate School of Business
Stanford, CA 94305
Sept 13, 2002
Published in: S.G. Cohen and C.B. Gibson (Eds.), Virtual Teams that Work (2003). San
Francisco: Jossey-Bass. pp-335-352
We would like to express our thanks to Karen Jehn and Gregory Northcraft for their thoughtful
advice during the development of this project; and to the people who made the project possible:
Sai Allavarpu, Julie Harper, Nadine Lucas, Grace Tow, and the responding teams and managers.
Conflict in Virtual Teams
“Miscommunication and flaming e-mails [between team members who
were geographically distributed] followed and exchanged for weeks…the flames
eventually died down, but I don’t know if the issue was ever resolved.”
Is conflict different within virtual teams? Are there unique communication skills for the
perception and subsequent management of conflict in virtual teams? By their nature, teams who
are virtual - whose members are not all in the same location - are likely to face challenges in
their dynamics and in the perception and management of any ensuing conflict. The role of
communication in conflict perception and management is critical not only because how a team
communicates is a major factor that distinguishes more virtual teams from their less virtual
counterparts, but also because skill in face-to-face communication and conflict management does
not necessarily map on to skill in virtual communication and the (virtual) management of
While communication methods vary dramatically in virtual teams, communication
technologies are part of the enabling force behind the existence of many virtual teams. Janine
Kilty, Director Worldwide Human Resources and Vice President, Health Imaging at Eastman
Kodak, reports that she sometimes spends an entire day in one conference call. Kilty has found
that such lengthy interactions without face-to-face contact have required that she “re-learn” how
to communicate effectively, and master the recognition of auditory, rather than visual interaction
cues. In general, members of distributed teams may use synchronous and/or asynchronous
communication technologies (e.g., phone and electronic mail), and the technology may vary on
how able it is to document the communication. “Media effects” is a phrase used to describe all
the outcomes that result from the use of a particular communication medium. However, it is
critical to keep in mind that few (if any) media effects are deterministic. Rather, the effects
noted for a particular medium are generally a combination of the technological capabilities of the
medium, combined with how well the medium is understood, and finally, how it is actually used
in the group (e.g., DeSanctis, Poole, & Dickson, 2000).
Though media effects are a function of user experience as well as technological
capabilities, use of electronic or computer-supported communication technologies, without face-
to-face interaction, may alter the form, and/or dynamics of conflict. For example, conflict may
be hidden longer in more virtual teams than might be the case in more traditional settings.
Nancy Chase, of QualityOnLine, notes that
"…in a virtual team, when things go awry, they can do so for a longer
period of time before they’re noticed…. so the virtual team leader—any team
member, but particularly the team leader—might want to be a little more vigilant
to try to catch early warning signs that there’s a problem with the team or the
schedule. The problem is not usually intention or commitment to the team. It’s
usually some breakdown of communication. This is true in any group of people
coming together; it’s just exacerbated in a virtual environment” (Training Trends,
This is an example of one way that conflict dynamics may be altered in more virtual
settings. It is also possible that the work environment of virtual teams may reduce some types of
conflict. Articles about Verifone (written before it was acquired by Hewlett-Packard) describe
how virtual teams were able to work around the clock without violating the personal time of any
one team member (Pape, 1997). Additionally, the use of asynchronous communication (e.g., e-
mail) may give team members time to think through a response rather than their responding in
the heat of the moment.
These anecdotal examples of conflict in virtual teams provide us with an interesting
perspective from practitioners involved in managing virtual teams. The rest of the chapter will
present a more organized assessment of conflict across the variety of settings encountered by
such teams. First we will provide our perspective on the characteristics of more and less virtual
teams. We then address the role of conflict across the range of these teams. The results of a
field study then serve to highlight what we do and do not know about conflict in more and less
virtual teams. We close with a discussion of our open questions and some key points to consider
in the design and management of virtual teams in organizations.
Virtual Teams in Modern Organizations
The discussion above has foreshadowed some of our thinking regarding what it
means to be virtual. At this stage of our understanding we believe managers should focus
on three basic dimensions for both identifying and understanding virtual teams: 1)
members’ relative locations, 2) percentage of time on the team task spent face-to-face, and
3) level of technological support. Clearly, these dimensions are related in practice. If a
team’s members are geographically distributed, we would expect to find that they would
have high levels of technological support and would use electronic communication more
frequently than more colocated groups. However, practice also suggests that even teams
located in the same building may communicate largely by e-mail. In fact, in the
organization to be described here, all teams spent an equal amount of time working face-
to-face on the team task (approximately 13%). E-mail use did vary by whether all the
members were colocated, but not to a great extent (34% of all task communication in
colocated teams versus 45.76% in distributed teams).
The ideas we will present on conflict take these possibilities into account. Some of
the issues raised are related to a reliance on electronic communication, others are more
focused on the capabilities of the technology, while still others are more related to the
outcomes of members being physically separated. This said, for clarity we will often refer
to more or less virtual teams, meaning teams with more or fewer of these technological and
The Role of Conflict in Teams
Contrary to what may be popular belief, some level of conflict is necessary for the
successful functioning of the team. However, conflict must be managed to be effective and it is
important to understand that not all conflict is the same. Broadly, conflict in teams is simply
awareness by some or all of the members of differences, discrepancies, incompatible wishes, or
irreconcilable desires (Boulding, 1963). There has been a debate in organizational research
regarding whether disagreement within teams is advantageous (Eisenhardt & Zbaracki, 1992).
One key to unlocking this complex relationship lies in the differentiation of conflict as
relationship, task, or process focused (Jehn, 1995).
Relationship conflict (or affective conflict) is an awareness of interpersonal differences.
Relationship conflict may include personality differences, hostility, and annoyance between
individuals. Relationship conflict has a negative effect on individual and team performance and
has also been found to negatively affect team member satisfaction and the likelihood the team
will work together in the future (Jehn & Mannix, 2001). Team members may be distracted from
the task, work less cooperatively, or produce sub-optimal products if they have relationship
Task (or cognitive) conflict is an awareness of differences in viewpoints and opinions
pertaining to the team's task. Task conflict may include disagreements about the task being
performed. This may include disagreement regarding an organization’s current hiring strategies
or determining the information to include in an annual report. In contrast to relationship conflict,
moderate levels of task conflict have been shown to be beneficial to team performance in various
decision-making and team tasks. Teams performing complex cognitive tasks benefit from
differences of opinion about the work being done (Jehn & Mannix, 2001). Task conflict
improves decision quality as teams drop old patterns of interaction and adopt new perspectives.
The synthesis that emerges from task conflict is generally superior to the individual perspectives
themselves (Schwenk, 1990). Thus, the presence of task conflict, accompanied by its effective
resolution, should improve team performance.
Process conflict includes disagreements regarding how to do the task or how to delegate
resources (Jehn, 1997). While process conflict is the least examined of the three types of
conflict, early work suggests that unresolved process conflict can be detrimental to team
performance. Process conflict may focus attention on irrelevant topics, or get in the way of the
team actually getting on to the task.
Unfortunately, recent research in this domain (see for a review, Simons & Peterson,
2000) indicates that people often misperceive which of the forms of conflict they are
experiencing. What is technically a conflict about the task, for example, may be taken personally
and so experienced as relationship conflict. The comment, “I think you’re wrong in focusing on
the strategic plan when we’re in the middle of a budget crisis” may be taken as a condemnation
of the person, rather than as a comment on the time and resource requirements of the situation.
Misattribution may be more likely in newly formed or highly diverse teams, where a lack of deep
knowledge of teammates may cause members to confuse one type of conflict for another
(Gruenfeld, Mannix, Williams, & Neale, 1996). Thus, it is possible that by facilitating task
conflict, a team may run considerable risk in also increasing the level of relationship or process
One factor that seems to break this cycle in teams is the existence of trust (Simons &
Peterson, 2000). Teams characterized by trust in the form of competence, integrity, and
benevolence face a lesser challenge (see Mayer, Davis, & Schoorman, 1995, for a discussion of
the components of trust) in that they are more likely to be able to generate moderate levels of
task conflict and avoid misinterpreting conflict. Further, the sense of trust will make conflict,
when it occurs, more easily resolved. Given trust, the task conflict noted above might be
interpreted correctly as task conflict, rather than a personal attack – the recipient being more
willing to trust that their colleague is focused on work rather than, for example, making points
with the boss. While these are tasks that traditional teams often find difficult to manage
effectively, there are special challenges faced by distributed teams in identifying and managing
conflict. These are discussed below.
• Role of Conflict in Virtual Teams
We believe that managing conflict successfully is a different process in more virtual
versus more traditional teams. Past research and experience point to a variety of issues that
make conflict management difficult in the best of circumstances. In the more complex and
unfamiliar world of virtual teams, these hurdles are amplified. That said, there may also be
attributes of virtual work that will make certain aspects of conflict easier to manage.
In our prior research (e.g., Griffith & Neale, 2001), we have developed theoretical
approaches for understanding differences and similarities across more traditional and more
virtual teams. Here, we are able to link these approaches to the experiences of over one hundred
people involved in 28 teams. In the sections below we evaluate the dynamics and outcomes of
conflict across both more and less virtual teams. Thirteen of the twenty-eight teams were
colocated (all employed at the same company site). The other 15 teams had a least one team
member working away from the rest of the team, and some of these teams were spread across a
variety of the company’s locations. Our questions start with the most basic background issues of
the construction of these teams, and move towards the most complex regarding the perceptions
and management of conflict.
What We Know and How We Know It
We partnered with a large software firm (which we will call SoftCo) to collect this data.
We administered a web-based survey to 35 teams representing employees from the company’s
three US locations and a variety of European sites in exchange for help in developing and
delivering training for virtual teams. Team members were e-mailed by a SoftCo executive
asking for their help in return for a small gift (in the form of a company pen). Respondents were
also told that the data collected would be used to improve training at the firm. The teams range
in size from 2 to 28 members. Fifty-seven percent of team members are male with an average
age of 36. Forty-one cities are represented across the 35 sampled teams. Of the 35 total teams,
28 provided data that we could use to evaluate conflict. The teams were all permanent, with
reporting relationships to managers. Their areas of responsibility spanned most of the areas of
the firm, including information systems, software engineering, human resources, and
administrative functions such as purchasing.
Figure 1 plots these teams along the dimensions of percentage of time spent face-to-face
on task, distribution (an aggregate measure taking into account the size of the group and the
proportions working at the same location), and percentage of task communication done via e-
mail. As can be seen in the figure, there were wide ranges on each of these measures: percentage
of time spent face-to-face on task (0 to 68%); distribution (0 to 1.75, i.e., ranging from teams that
were fully colocated to an eight person team with seven locations); and percentage of task
communication done via e-mail (10% to 57%). This range of teams is probably typical for many
organizations. None of the teams were either fully traditional (doing all their task work together)
or purely virtual (where none of the members ever meet face-to-face).
Given that the teams have some degree of control over their communication and meeting
strategies, we will focus here on differences between teams that are colocated1, and those that are
1 Included in “colocated” group is one eight member team with only one member off site – this minor level
of distribution seemed to fit more appropriately with the colocated, versus distributed teams.
% of Communication via Email
% of Time on Task Face to Face with All Members
Range of Virtualness
• Questions and Answers
The field study provided both an opportunity to address some of the basic questions of
virtual teams and conflict, as well as the possibility of rich insights given the team members’
comments. Below we present the results of a quantitative analysis of the key questions, and then
move to quotations from our respondents in order to highlight our main findings. We begin with
the most basic of questions, the level of conflict in more versus less virtual teams. Following
that we progress into analyses of the structural nature of these teams, and finally, to their
Do virtual teams experience more conflict than traditional teams?
We found virtual teams had greater levels of process conflict than traditional teams, but
only when also controlling for the effects of trust (more on this below). We did not find
differences in the levels of task or relationship conflict. (See Figure 2.) This result is consistent
with some of our earlier work (Griffith & Meader, 2001) on investment clubs. There we found
that a focus on the process, but not task or social aspects, of team functioning was a positive
predictor of portfolio value in more and less virtual clubs. As more virtual teams have to manage
greater complexity, attention to process can become a key to their success. A similar focus in
less virtual teams, however, may actually get in the way of efficient and effective standard
The lack of differences in task and relationship conflict levels between virtual and
traditional teams at SoftCo may be the outcome of the teams structuring their work in a way that
overcomes the challenges of distance. The data presented here are a single snapshot of the
conflict and performance of these teams and they may have already found solutions to problems
initially encountered. Alternatively, the lack of differences may be an indication of adjustments
in expectations. In the investment club study, Griffith and Meader (2001) argue that members of
more virtual clubs may expect less emotional communication and may even self-select into such
clubs to accommodate their preferences. Thus, even if relationship conflict occurs, it might not
be recognized as such by team members. Alternatively, it may be recognized, but not
acknowledged as important. Unfortunately, we cannot tease apart these alternatives with our
current survey measures. Future work more focused on observation over time may be able to
disentangle these alternatives.
Figure 2: Levels of Conflicta for Colocated and Distributed Teams
Task Conflict Relationship
Type of Conflict
Level of Conflict
a 1=Conflict was not at all experienced, 5= A lot of conflict was experienced
Earlier we proposed that conflict is often the result of having to manage diverse
perspectives. This leads us to the next question:
Are virtual teams more diverse than traditional teams?
Our expectation was that the answer would be yes. The cost of virtual teams is warranted
when needed information is not available locally. Indeed the more virtual teams at SoftCo were
also more diverse in terms of the informational background of their members. This was
measured by considering the educational level, functional area, and position in the firm. We
also would have expected the more virtual teams to be more diverse in terms of the ethnicity and
cultures represented. However, the firm was not comfortable with our requesting such
Such demographic, or “social category” diversity has been found to be a precursor to
creativity and higher levels of performance on complex group tasks (Watson, Kumar, &
Michaelsen, 1993; Williams & O'Reilly, 1998). However, demographic diversity has also been
shown to increase relationship conflict and impede group functioning (Jehn, Northcraft, & Neale,
1999). Thus, the cumulative effect of different forms of diversity on virtual teams is an
important topic, but will have to be left for future study.
Conflict is the focus of our examination. While structural issues such as diversity play a
strong role, informational diversity was not related to increased levels of the three types of
conflict in this firm. Further, given the constraints placed on our access to team members, we
could not address issues related to social category diversity. However, there are additional team
dynamics that are also critical to our understanding of conflict in more and less virtual teams. As
noted above, trust plays a role in our observation of conflict. Additionally, identification with
the team may also vary from less to more virtual teams. Thus, our next questions:
Do traditional team members identify themselves with the team more than members of
virtual teams? Do they perceive greater trust within their teams?
This does not seem to be the case in this organization. Neither trust nor team
identification is significantly related to the distribution of the team members. This may bode
well for the management of more virtual teams. This is an indication that both trust and team
identification can be high, even in the more challenging virtual settings. Below, we explore this
issue in more detail and consider the related managerial implications of these findings.
Does this mean that virtualness doesn’t matter?
The above relationships seem to illustrate only minor differences between teams that
work together and those that work apart – process conflict was higher in more virtual teams and
information diversity was also greater, but not in a way that seemed to affect conflict. We do not
believe that this is an indication that virtualness does not matter for team dynamics and
outcomes; rather, we believe these results indicate a more complex set of relationships among
team dynamics, the virtual environment, and conflict. Earlier we suggested that how the groups
adjust their work structure or expectations may be playing a role in the results. We would like to
examine this possibility in greater detail.
Technology effects are not deterministic. That is, teams adapt their structure, processes,
and technology use to suit their needs (DeSanctis et al., 2000). Our assessment of whether more
or less virtual teams have particular outcomes relies on these teams acting in fixed ways. We
doubt this is the case. Instead, we offer that these teams have more or less adapted to their
situations. By consideration of additional and joint relationships, such as the role of trust and the
perceived ability to notice conflict, we believe that differences in these teams can be identified,
and managerial implications drawn from the results. Before getting into the complexities of
these joint relationships, we first consider what we know about performance in these teams.
What about performance?
We find that the distribution of team members does not seem to have an observable effect
on performance. At SoftCo, teams with members who all work in the same location do not
receive significantly higher managerial performance ratings than do teams with members
distributed across locations. Process and relationship conflict, however, are related in expected
ways to overall team performance. Our analyses show that, regardless of virtualness,
relationship and process conflict both have significantly negative effects on performance as rated
by the team’s manager. Task conflict, however, does not seem to produce these effects.
The next step is to examine these effects from the perspective of virtualness. Earlier we
noted that teams who are more distributed have more process conflict, and that this effect is
clarified by controlling for trust. In fact, by knowing that a team has members who work apart
and their level of trust, we can account for almost 50% of the team’s process conflict.
Additional analyses show these effects are not simply due to how the team communicates. Trust
and distribution of the team members seem to be key to understanding performance. Apparently,
we can manage trust independently of team colocation given our earlier result that trust is not
tied to the distribution of the team members. However, process conflict, which is related to
lower team performance is positively related to the distribution of team members and negatively
related to trust.
These effects can be seen in Figure 3. Teams whose members are more distributed, but
also have high levels of trust, can expect to have lower levels of process conflict than teams
whose members all work in the same location, but with low levels of trust. Again, the powerful
point in this issue is that trust is not a function of location. We can manage trust independently
from the distribution of the team.
Figure 3: Process Conflict a, Trust, and Distribution.
Low Trust High Trust
a 1=Conflict was not at all experienced, 5= A lot of conflict was experienced
If trust is so important for the reduction of conflict –
how can it be increased in more virtual teams?
At SoftCo, trust was higher the more the team communicated using e-mail and the more
they worked together face-to-face. This is consistent with prior research on trust (Mayer et al.,
1995) suggesting that the relationship between behavior and trust is recursive – trusting
behaviors are both antecedents and outcomes of trust. Teams need time together and
communication to be able to develop trust.
These particular results are suggestive that this is “true” trust in this setting, rather than
the “swift” trust observed in some pure (members who never meet) virtual teams (Jarvenpaa &
Leidner, 1999). Swift trust is differentiated from true trust in that swift trust can exist where
there has been no opportunity to develop more traditional forms of trust (Meyerson, Weick, &
Kramer, 1996). Both types of trust have been shown to have positive effects on team dynamics
With trust comes another opportunity: the ability to notice conflict. The psychological
safety related to trust has been found to foster situations where openness and comfort in speaking
up about difficult issues is possible (Edmondson, Bohmer, & Pisano, 2000). Conflict cannot be
managed until team members are willing to surface the issue or the conflict. Trust may make
this necessary step in conflict management possible.
Our study provides additional insight to this perspective. We asked the team members
the following question: Sometimes it is easy to know when a conflict is occurring in a team, at
other times conflict may be difficult see. Thinking about this team, how often can you tell when
there is a conflict? (Note that this is a question of their perceived ability to identify conflict, not
a test of their ability to manage conflict. We also allowed the respondents to indicate that there
wasn’t any conflict in their team.) Figure 4 illustrates the results.
Figure 4: Perceived Ability to Notice Conflicta, Trust and Distribution.
Low Trust High Trust
Perceived Ability to
a 1=Never, 5= All of the time
Trust and distribution account for 43% of the variance in team members’ perceived
abilities to notice conflict. It is also interesting to note that team members’ reported ability to
notice conflict is not correlated with the perceived level of conflict in the team -- suggesting that
this is not just an indication of a conflict focus, per se, or of teams reaching a particular
“noticeable” level of conflict.
These last results illustrate the importance of proactively managing team dynamics. Use
of e-mail, time spent with the full team working together, and the development of trust, can all be
managed explicitly. Teams can receive training that identifies the value of clear role
responsibilities, the importance of following through on assigned tasks, and how to track
members’ completion of tasks. Trust is built -- as it is earned. Additionally, the value of swift
trust can be brought to the attention of more virtual teams. It is critical that trust be assumed (as
is the case with what is called “swift trust”) in the early stages, even before true trust has had a
chance to form naturally.
E-mail seems to have a unique role in the development of trust. Face-to-face
communication, or the ability to work face-to-face with the whole team, did not seem to
substitute for e-mail communication. E-mail may help to build trust among team members who
use it more often; perhaps because e-mail allows such a quick response, or because of its ability
to document commitments.
We do have a paradox when we consider the statements of the team members regarding
the signals that they used to identify conflict. While members of highly distributed teams report a
greater ability to notice conflict, many of their comments regarding the signals that they used
imply face-to-face interaction. We asked the respondents to think back to the last conflict they
were aware of, and then describe what made them notice the conflict in the team. Of the 57
responses (not applicable was an optional answer), 24 could be identified as requiring face-to-
face interaction. Many of the comments indicated visual clues: “flushing of a face,” “clues in
posture,” “glancing at each other,” and “body language.” Other clues were more related to
verbal communication: “pregnant silences,” “team members tend to get quiet,” “ massive
silence,” “ raised voices,” and “derogatory comment[s].” There were also a variety of ways
conflict was perceived via e-mail: “flaming e-mails,” “disconnect in the information/process,”
“receiving different messages…regarding the same work,” and “conflicting e-mails.” It may be
that more distributed teams are more focused on noticing conflict. They may work harder to
sense the level of conflict in an effort to overcome the challenges of working apart, which is,
again, an indication of how teams can adapt to the challenges of virtual work.
There are basically five methods of conflict “management.” Avoidance, in which the
issue is ignored, or more positively, left for a time when cooler minds can prevail; competition,
in which one party tries to take all the gains; accommodation, in which one party tries to give all
the gains to the other(s); compromise, in which the parties agree to “split the difference;” and
collaboration/integration, in which the parties find a solution where all can gain. While there are
times when each may be effective, avoidance and collaboration/integration seem to be the most
prevalent choices in SoftCo’s teams’ management of conflict. The following examples from
members of more virtual teams highlight the opportunities and challenges faced in these
This first set takes note of information sharing and strong communicative processes:
I approached my manager when I noticed tension between us, and we
talked through what he was thinking, and the fears he was having about me and
my views of the department. We talked about some possible solutions to improve
general team issues, and seemed to work through the tension pretty well.
A project manager noticed conflict in an e-mail exchange regarding work assignments:
She called them separately, discussed what the issue was that each of them
was facing and also found out about their experience level and how they got
along with each other. After talking separately she did a conference call with
both of the team members on-line and resolved the issues by assigning the tasks
equally based on the experience. Both the team members felt comfortable and
Another respondent notes, “The entire team thrives on technical challenges. AOL Instant
Messenger allows us to, well, instantly mitigate issues before they get out of hand.
The value of face–to-face communication was also noted:
When the entire department was approached regarding some
unacceptable e-mails that were sent to certain individuals, our manager brought
the group together and addressed it in a serious and formal manner without
pointing any fingers and making anyone feel uncomfortable.
These examples were provided as responses to a request to tell us about the most
successful case of conflict management they had recently observed. Many of these responses
focused on getting issues out on the table and striving for a joint solution – a collaborative
conflict management strategy. While this is good advice for all teams, in virtual teams it may be
even more crucial. Conflict must first be identified before it can be addressed. Addressing
conflict in more virtual settings may require a more explicit effort to make contact with the
parties, and perhaps a more explicit discussion (given the difficulty of conveying tacit ideas
when not face-to-face). These increased costs may actually turn into benefits. A common
problem in conflict management is that issues in dispute are not directly addressed. In the case
of more virtual teams, when conflict management is in fact instigated, the process must be more
explicit given likely communication restrictions. This more explicit communication may
effectively avoid the common problem of misunderstandings found in less explicit
We also asked respondents to describe the least successful case of conflict management
that they had recently observed. These examples from some of the more virtual teams often fall
into the category of conflict avoidance.
Conflict is not currently being managed in this team. The team is choosing
to use conflict avoidance as a method of conflict management. Some team
members will ‘confront’ others when/if they have an issue, but more often people
keep the issues to themselves and/or ‘push it under the rug.’
In fact, of the 29 “least successful” examples of conflict management (from both more
and less virtual teams), 15 describe situations of conflict avoidance or lack of communication.
One comment was especially telling: “[We] [g]enerally never have this problem, because those
people just quit.”
On a more positive note, team members seem to understand the challenges and the role
that communication and trust play: “The tension in the team still exists. This issue made me
realize even more some of the trust and communication issues we are having as a department.”
It is interesting that the insights of the respondents are so consistent with effective
conflict management techniques. There is a focus on bringing the issues in conflict out into the
open and working to solve problems in a way that integrates the parties’ needs. However, it may
be too early to celebrate the expertise of our respondents. In the next section we consider
additional questions and areas where this particular research may limit our ability to generalize.
• Open Questions & Issues
The respondents cannot tell us about conflicts they have not noticed. Only about half the
respondents provided us with successful conflict management examples. Some stated that they
had not been in the team long enough to notice conflict, or that their team did not have any
conflict at all. This may well be the case, or we may be seeing that not all respondents perceive
conflict, and so miss the chance to manage their team’s dynamics to the best degree possible.
The current study is solely based on the respondents’ self-reports of conflict. We do not
have measures over time nor do we have objective measures of the actual level of conflict in the
teams. As we noted in the introduction, misperception, or misattributions of conflict is common
in teams – and inhibits the team’s ability to manage their conflict effectively.
Finally, we have yet to assess the pattern of conflict in each of these teams. Relative
levels of task, process, and relationship conflict play unique roles in team effectiveness (Jehn &
Chatman, 2001). In addition, the time at which these types of conflict occur can be critical. Jehn
and Mannix (2001) have demonstrated that higher group performance is associated with
particular patterns of conflict. In their study of face-to-face teams, high-performing teams were
characterized by low, but increasing, levels of process conflict, low levels of relationship conflict
with a rise near the deadline, and moderate levels of task conflict at the midpoint of the
interaction. To create this ideal conflict profile, team members had similar pre-established value
systems, high levels of trust and respect, and open discussion norms around conflict during the
middle stages of interaction. These patterns are currently being tested in a variety of teams, with
different tasks and compositions. Whether these patterns will hold for virtual teams is uncertain,
but certainly a topic for future research.
The above discussion suggests three areas where practicing managers and their teams can
improve their chances for success: the initial construction of more and less virtual teams, how
awareness of conflict plays a role in virtual team function, and suggestions for the management
of conflict, once it is noticed. We believe that focusing on these key areas will provide a strong
foundation for the support of virtual teams.
• Initial Construction of Virtual Teams
We support experienced virtual team managers in arguing that it is important to get the
structure and infrastructure of virtual teams right from the beginning. Explicit consideration of
roles, trust, and communication processes should be addressed from the start. A face-to-face
introductory meeting may be key. Chris Brennan of Lotus Institute and now IBM has worked
for four years on the development of virtual teams. He believes that a facilitated face-to-face
development session is important. "Our work suggests that the complication in a virtual team
has to do with discipline and alignment. If you have 10 people located in 10 different places and
they are not all sure that they know what they're doing, chaos breaks out. It is critical that they
establish a relationship and trust each other" (Young, 1998).
Chris Newell, executive director of Lotus Institute, says at the very least you should have
a one-day videoconference. "…it's important to develop some level of trust and relationship
before you can move into electronic communication." However, needs for trust may vary by
type of project. Still, Newell recommends a statement of mission, norms, and agreements about
how to operate and how to handle the technological aspects of the team’s interactions. Such a
guide might include rules about conflict management. For example, you may agree to meet in
person if you have conflict (Geber, 1995). Janine Kilty of Eastman Kodak notes that overt
conflicts often conceal underlying issues that hinge on matters of trust and respect. These should
never be dealt with over the phone or via e-mail, but must be handled face-to-face. Most virtual
communities seem to have seen the value of such systems. A popular guide to the construction
and management of such on-line communities advises that the community’s “host” (moderator)
point newcomers to electronic archives, and that rules for behavior and the management of
conflict be clear and developed before a community is opened (Rheingold, 1998).
The value of an infrastructure that can capture a team’s history is echoed in comments by
Susan Sowers, manager of the Hewlett-Packard corporate client-computing group. She manages
a virtual team of 21 people over three US sites and notes that virtual teams need more formal
communications, not fewer. "Cohesion can be broken when someone new joins. That's why it's
particularly important to make sure that nearly all communications are kept in the shared
database, so that a historical document of the group's work is available for the new person to
peruse" (Geber, 1995).
A simple start to developing this infrastructure is to share communication capabilities and
values. One way to resolve process conflict is by managing the complexity of the team’s
communication. At a minimum team members should know:
• Times it is reasonable to call (considering time zones, etc.)
• Days when calls are appropriate (considering cultural, family, or work schedule
• Appropriate communication media and contact information (considering the form and
urgency of the message)
• Documentation procedures including uses of e-mail subject headings, file types, and
• Meeting/contact schedules and milestones.
As the team works together, there must also be time taken for team assessment and
maintenance. James Brault, Director World Wide Human Resources, Document Imaging, at
Eastman Kodak finds that group initiation and maintenance issues are too often ignored in virtual
teams. Brault has written an extensive company guide on “How to Master Virtual Teams”
(Brault, 1999). In the guide he describes seven categories of skills and resources that must be
present for virtual teams to work effectively:
• Clear direction, goals, and roles
• Appropriate and clear rewards and recognition
• Appropriate capability, skills, and training
• Established processes and norms
• Strong leadership
• Ability to fully utilize virtual technology
• Environmental mechanisms for face-to-face interaction
He argues that the team leader must be responsible for assessing the team and team members on
each of these dimensions – both at the formation of the team, and also as the team works
together. Taking on this assessment may set the stage for effective task conflict resolution – and
reduce the possibility of related process conflicts arising that then might be misinterpreted as
• Awareness of Conflict
Conflict cannot be managed until it is noticed. This is an area in which virtual teams may
be at an advantage. Interestingly, the respondents from SoftCo’s more virtual teams report a
greater ability to notice conflict when it occurs. Perhaps in more virtual teams, when face-to-
face communication does take place, this communication is less mundane, leading team
members to pay more attention to the nuances of the communication. While conflict may go
unnoticed, or at least take longer to be noticed in virtual teams, this does not have to be the case.
The SoftCo respondents have developed approaches for noticing conflict through e-mail. To the
extent that people can learn to notice conflict in face-to-face settings, we believe that there is at
least equal opportunity for developing the necessary skills to identify conflict in more virtual
It is even plausible that members of more virtual teams will be better able to focus on
task and process conflict – positive types of conflict. Face-to-face communication is generally
required to communicate tacit information. Relationship conflict – a negative type of conflict –
may require tacit channels to communicate. Explicit forms of communication, such as e-mail,
may be better suited to the communication of task and process conflict - possibly good news for
more virtual teams.
Thus, we see two possible benefits for more virtual teams. First, if, as the results from
SoftCo suggest, more virtual teams are more focused on noticing conflict, they may actually
have a head start on conflict management. Their greater focus on noticing conflict gives them an
initial lead over more traditional teams. The SoftCo data suggests that noticing conflict in more
virtual settings is possible, and we would add that the likelihood of success will go up to the
extent that teams make a conscious effort to identify conflict in its early stages. Second, it is
possible that relationship conflict can be filtered out of computer-mediated communication. This
could also be a boon to more virtual teams. Such benefits may serve to offset the very real
challenge of greater process conflict overall given the more complex situations that virtual teams
• The Conflict Management Process
Managing the conflict that you notice, however, is not trivial. The dynamics of working
in a team are more complex than working alone. Virtual team dynamics are more complicated
still. Prior research has shown that attention to process is key to the success of more virtual
teams and our current study echoes those findings. Team performance is hurt by unresolved
process conflict, and virtual teams are more likely to have process conflict. However, the SoftCo
study suggests that this negative effect can be ameliorated by trust and increased communication,
especially e-mail. In fact, Kodak’s Brault suggests that “over-communication” is the key –
communicate far beyond what you might in a more face-to-face setting. These effects can take
conflict management from the stage of noticing conflict, through to understanding how to resolve
the conflict itself. Virtual teams are not sentenced to increased conflict. Given appropriate
resources, by being aware of their situation, they can construct their environments so as to reduce
unresolved process conflict, and perhaps find ways to out perform their colocated counterparts
by greater application of their diverse expertise.
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