We have heard a thousand times that conflict isn’t a bad thing. No match is lit without friction. Pressure turns coal into diamonds. The list of clichés is long. The fact that they’re true doesn’t eliminate a major sticking point: for many of us, conflict is uncomfortable, and we try to avoid it as much as we can.
When we work remotely, conflict is just as uncomfortable as it is in a regular meeting or office, but it’s easier to avoid. This can be a good thing—we don’t get into arguments when Larry from accounting goes off on one of his rants—but there’s a difference between avoiding unnecessary conflict and just refusing to take part in a discussion or engage with a teammate because you disagree with them.
On a remote team, conflict is sometimes hard to recognize because the most corrosive behavior is sometimes the lack of communication. Rather than argue, or press a point, it’s easy to withdraw completely, or to snipe at people through email out of sight from the rest of the team. As a leader, it’s important to help create an environment where people can be heard, conflicting views are expressed, but the mood doesn’t turn into destructive action that can ruin team cohesion and the ability to get work done.
Be proactive in bringing up conflict
Conflict that’s ignored doesn’t go away. It festers. Good remote leaders get these issues on the table so they can be addressed and solved.
One way to do this is to raise issues in a neutral way, then allow people the space to step in. For example, if you know that Alice has concerns about the new plan, you can say something like, “I’ve heard a few people have concerns about this idea. Let’s discuss them now. Does anyone have something to contribute…”
Notice what has happened here: you’re the one who’s raised the concern, and you’ve implied (and it may be true) that more than one person has a concern. Now anyone can speak up and it’s not a personal attack on the original speaker. The discussion is about the idea, and you’ve given Alice space to speak up without having to make it about her.
The PIN Technique
Another great idea, and this requires modeling by the leader (which may be why it isn’t used like it should be: it’s hard!) is the PIN technique. This is a way of addressing ideas so that you’re not attacking the speaker, or trying to shoot down their argument without giving it a fair shot. Essentially you make your case in the following way:
P stands for positive: What is good about the person’s idea? By stating the positive first, you’ve demonstrated that you heard the idea, understand it, and acknowledge the strengths (if there are any) to that idea. This will make the other person more receptive to feedback.
I is for Interesting: You’re acknowledging that this is an interesting idea, but you need more information. This gives you wiggle room to point out the data that may be missing, or the unknowns in their case. “This could work if….” Is a great way to phrase these concerns.
N is for negative: Once you’ve acknowledged the positive aspects of the person’s idea, and pointed out what is still unknown or intriguing but not full explored, you’ve earned the right to point out what’s wrong with it. And remember, you’re talking about why you disagree with Larry’s idea, not Larry as a person.
Use your remote tools to your advantage
Often this is easier to do in writing—not everyone is a skilled debater. Don’t be afraid to use discussion boards and other ways to get written input to ideas so that you don’t rely on people’s willingness to speak off-the-cuff in meetings. This is where it might actually be easier for remote teams. You don’t have to hash this out verbally, face-to-face.
Since withdrawal and avoiding conflict is so easy for remote workers, it’s on leaders to help create an environment where disagreement doesn’t equal character assassination and people can discuss differences without hurting the team.
Managing the different personalities on your remote team and making sure communication is healthy and productive is a major part of what you do as a remote leader. A great foundation for that is understanding the communication styles of everyone on the team. This course is a great way to start.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager
Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.
Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. Wayne and Kevin’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammate, offers a roadmap for success not just for leaders, but for everyone making the transition to working remotely.