Employee conflicts can be poisonous. We have all experienced the damage to productivity, crushed creativity, and squashed morale. As Kevin M. Campbell, Accenture’s Group Chief Executive, Technology, notes, “All too often, I’ve seen that personal conflicts derail costly projects and important initiatives.” Unresolved employee conflicts are bad enough in a traditional, physical workplace. They are all the more dangerous in a virtual environment, where people don’t have the luxury of proximity to work their differences out face-to-face.
I’m not saying that companies should completely avoid employee conflicts. Quite the contrary. I see conflict avoidance as one of the most corrosive attributes of many company cultures. I’ve always felt, and our research proves, that well-managed conflicts can increase trust, respect, and intimacy among employees within and across teams. The trick is in understanding the basic nature of workplace conflicts.
First, some workplace conflicts are interpersonal, and others are task related. Relationship conflicts are often difficult to resolve and they can lead to avoidance instead of an honest effort to work things out. Consider that a common reason why people quit their jobs is because they can’t get along with their bosses. Task conflicts, on the other hand, tend to be more straightforward to resolve and can lead to better ways of doing things. In addition, there’s an entire set of conflicts that are absolutely healthy for structural and organizational reasons, like competition for limited resources or natural checks and balances when certain jobs have specific authority over others.
Second, when it comes to workplace conflicts, the virtual environment is a double-edged sword. The good news is that bad relationship conflicts don’t occur as often because virtual team members are typically focused more on their work and less on interpersonal issues and office politics. Hence, “bad blood” is less likely to develop between co-workers. But the bad news is that, because of the lack of face-to-face contact, which helps to accelerate empathy, task-related disputes can more quickly devolve into relationship conflicts. Most of us can recount a past experience in which a series of testy e-mails quickly turned a valid work disagreement into a personal grudge. For various reasons, people often behave with far less restraint in a virtual environment than in the physical world — a phenomenon that psychologists call the “online disinhibition effect.”
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