Businessman shouting at computerBy Kevin Eikenberry

Just because your employees are scattered across different locations, don’t assume they won’t deal with the same personal issues that people in the office experience. While their face-to-face interactions may be limited, conflict can still brew. So expect it.

Additionally, conflicts among virtual employees are often harder to resolve because people rely too much on email to sort things out, or they simply ignore signs that issues are occurring. If left unchecked, the problems will only fester, affecting other members, and ultimately, the work of the team.

When conflicts arise on your team, follow this advice:

Set clear expectations

Expectations are important in every part of work performance, and especially when it comes to conflict. Establish expectations that include how you want people to communicate and interact. Often people feel because they don’t work closely with one another, building relationships isn’t important, so they don’t put in the extra effort. Additionally, your team members may already feel alienated, and they’re unsure of how to address issues when they do pop up.

Talk to your employees about how much they should communicate, how you want them to problem solve, and the steps they should take if conflict does occur.

Don’t ignore even small conflicts

Be engaged enough with your team that you recognize when conflicts are affecting communication and productivity. Talk to your team members regularly about how things are going, and keep your fingers on the pulse of the team. While you shouldn’t immediately intervene to solve every problem, you should be aware when issues threaten teamwork. Then you can reinforce your expectations, and encourage people to work through their issues. Remember that left alone, the situation likely won’t improve, especially when people can more easily ignore the conflict because they don’t see each other every day.

Open the communication lines

As a leader, part of your job is to keep people interacting and communicating successfully. Especially when you start to notice challenges between remote team members, do what you can to open the lines of communication. Engage those parties more on team calls, ask them for more input, encourage team members to share more with each other. The more team members communicate openly and honestly, the easier it will be to resolve conflicts.

Meet with the conflicting employees

If a conflict is growing, and employees won’t resolve it themselves, you will need to talk to the individuals involved to gain each person’s perspective and discuss the business reasons to resolve the conflict. It’s important that you don’t meet separately with employees. It’s too easy for employees to make false accusations, point fingers and make excuses for their own role in the conflict when the other person isn’t there to defend him- or herself.

Instead, mediate a conversation between the two employees. Ask them to share their viewpoints, talk through the issues and then set expectations for moving forward. It would be smart to set some guidelines for the discussion to ensure it remains productive. For example, ask employees to refrain from making assumptions or accusations, and of course, to keep it civil.

Emphasize the goals of the  conversation

People will sometimes resist working through their conflicts because they think your goal is to make them like each other.  Whenever you conduct these types of conversations, ensure that your team members know that your goal is for them to resolve the conflict so that they can work effectively with one another, not for them to become best friends. Of course if they end up liking each other, that is a nice benefit, but make it clear that isn’t your goal.

The great news about this list is that some of the ideas can help prevent conflicts in the first place. Preventing a problem is always better than trying to solve it, after all.

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