Events & Webinars Remote Productivity Conflict Management

Encouraging Conflict in High-Performing Remote and Hybrid Teams

May 14, 2021
10 min read

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How can you foster healthy, fact-driven conflict when working in remote and hybrid teams? Last month we held a webinar on Encouraging Conflict in High-Performing Remote and Hybrid Teams, moderated by Candace Giesbrecht, Teamit’s Director of the Remote Performance Academy, joined by panelists Dr. Thomas O'Neill, and Teamit’s President & Co-Founder, Alistair Shepherd-Cross.

Dr. O’Neill, organizational psychologist, remote work researcher, and world-renowned high-performing teams expert, leads a University of Calgary research project through the Individual and Team Performance Lab studying the key determinants of work team effectiveness. Preliminary research results show that 50 to 65% of participating teams are experiencing challenges around healthy, fact-driven conflict.

So, how can leaders promote healthy conflict and minimize unhealthy conflict? How does this impact employee retention and team functioning? Let’s dive into the five key takeaways discussed in the session.

Watch webinar on demand. 

Learning #1: There are three different types of conflict—the good, the bad and the ugly.

Dr. O’Neill defines healthy fact-driven conflict as a “concept of bringing people together with different knowledge, skills, abilities, ideas, perspectives, backgrounds and diversity to exchange information and ideas about complex problem-solving.”

He discusses three different types of conflict: task conflict, relationship conflict, and process conflict.

Task conflict is a ‘good’ type of conflict that should be encouraged and what drives the healthy factor of debate. “It’s really engaging and includes a lot of cross-functional teams that are brought together to solve a critical problem. Those teams tend to be very effective and have very healthy team dynamics because they usually want to be there,” said Dr. O’Neill. Creating an environment where people get to engage in this type of conflict is critical.

The second type is relationship conflict. Considered the ‘bad’ type of conflict and focuses on interpersonal tensions. Teams can still function, work through this and perform. “There isn’t a perfect correlation between productivity and team cohesion so you don’t have to be best friends to work well on a team,” says Dr. O’Neill.

He also added that, “One of the big challenges with having healthy, fact-driven debate is that it can spill over into that interpersonal conflict. Human beings don't really like having their ideas criticized and we don't typically even like people disagreeing with our ideas.”

The last and worst type is process conflict. This ‘ugly’ type of conflict is when you have disagreements about how the work will be done. “If people don’t know what to do, they’re not going to get the work done,” says Dr. O’Neill. “Agile work really targets the methods and the specificity of how work will be done which minimizes this kind of conflict and that’s one of the reasons it’s been so successful.”

Employee retention and conflict are also connected. "The things that make people potentially leave companies hasn’t really changed pre-COVID and where we are today. The same drivers such as trust, inclusion, having a chance to share ideas and being involved and respected matter to employees,” shared Shepherd-Cross.

Learning #2: Fostering healthy, fact-driven conflict within a high-performing team.

“We don’t want to be going to bat and debating every little decision, that’s exhausting,” said Dr. O’Neill. “We need to be able to recognize when the situation calls for that healthy factor of debate and when it doesn’t.” He continues to say, “If you have a matter that is very, very consequential and potentially a costly decision that requires people with different perspectives, knowledge and awareness, come together to discuss it when you have the time.”

Dr. O’Neill also encourages leaders to create and use a team charter to ask their team what they think are the kinds of things they should be engaging in a lot of debate about or when it makes sense to trust the person who holds accountability. Team charters include norms and expectations around meetings, communication, handling conflict, and decision making.

When there’s a problem that needs to be solved, it can be effective to come together, collaborate and engage in a healthy debate which drives innovation. However, sometimes it’s better to have a leader or someone with the right skill set to go ahead and make the decision. It’s important to consider how and when we’re spending that team time together.

“It’s being intentional about it,” says Dr. O’Neill. “One of the reasons why it doesn't happen these days is because nobody has an excuse to miss a meeting since every meeting is on Zoom. We're seeing that people's calendars are completely out of control and people booking meetings into their calendar without permission.”

When you have no time to prepare or reflect in advance about the issue how can you have time for a healthy debate?

Learning #3: The three C’s for leading a high-performing team.

Dr. O’Neill references the three C’s: communication, collaboration and coordination that leaders need to pay attention to when leading distributed, high-performing teams.

"When you're in a remote environment it’s harder because it's less natural and as humans, we evolved as a face-to-face species,” said Dr. O’Neill. “I'm not sure that leaders are as in touch with how people are feeling about the day-to-day work in the team and how the day-to-day work is getting done, as they might think.”

Alistair shared, “No matter how much of a platform you give people to share their frustrations and concerns, they never tell you everything because there’s that level of power imbalance.” However, there are technologies being developed to solve this problem such as the online platform called Officevibe, which allows employees to anonymously communicate around how they really feel about issues. “It’s a great way to actually get a much better pulse on what’s really going on within the organization,” said Shepherd-Cross.

Alistair also stressed the importance of personal development for leaders and not only how valuable it is but also how a big portion of a leader’s role is to make their team successful. “It’s important that a portion of that development is dedicated to teaching leaders what high-performance teamwork is and emphasizing that more,” said Shepherd-Cross.

Through the University of Calgary research study, Dr. O’Neill’s findings are showing that, “One of the most powerful predictors of a leader’s ratings of the team’s productivity and performance is the team’s collective sense of accountability,” he shared.

Learning #4: The key determinants of high-performing and effective teams.

“The most important determinant of team effectiveness is the team's environment, and whether or not they have an environment that's conducive to their success,” says Dr. O’Neill. “You need a team that has a good structure and norms.”

Dr. O’Neill also notes it’s important for leaders to provide coaching, emphasize a compelling purpose and provide direction for the team. “We're spending 40 hours a week (at least) of our lives at work. It's probably the one thing we do the most in our life for many of us, and yet, we're mostly unhappy. So, how do we create meaningful fulfillment,” added Dr. O’Neill.

“It starts by having a clear cultural statement and value statement from senior leadership that they adhere to, that they live up to, that they are constantly referring to, that they are using to guide decision making. But then it needs to filter down and each and every leader in the organization needs to explain how their team fits into that strategic alignment,” continued Dr. O’Neill.

As mentioned earlier, Dr. O’Neill encourages teams to come up with their own team charter. This can capture the team’s mission, values and answer those meaningful questions about purpose—Why are we here? Why does this matter?

On the flip side, "It’s an opportunity to try new things and be creative,” said Shepherd-Cross. “What works for one organization isn’t necessarily going to work for other organizations. And ultimately, the most important thing is that the founders and leaders of organizations have 100% bought into this and that they aren’t being dragged into it because they don’t have an option. If it starts at the top, it will most likely be successful and that goes for most things when it comes to organizations.”

Learning #5: The onboarding experience in the first 90 days for high-performing teams is crucial.

“The first 90-day experience for an employee really sets the tone for the happiness within the organization and the retention within that organization in the long-term,” says Shepherd-Cross.

There are several factors critical to a successful remote onboarding experience including making new hires feel welcomed, sending a welcome package, implementing a buddy system but most importantly, it’s the personal touch that goes a long way.

“A lot of it comes down to the managers themselves,” says Shepherd-Cross. "It’s a lot of extra work now, as a manager, to put the time and effort in to make sure that you're making your team members feel welcome. Carving out that time to make each individual feel special, appreciated and onboarded is critical.”

New employees are joining organizations that have transitioned to a distributed and remote workplace. For the majority of the company who would have been in an office environment pre-Covid, they know each other already and have had those personal connections. It’s important to remember the individuals starting remotely are coming in not having met anybody.

“You have to be so intentional about everything you do as a leader not only when you have a meeting set up with a new employee to talk about work, but also to have meetings set aside to have conversations so you can just get to know them, share information, and build that trust and rapport outside of just the work environment,” Shepherd-Cross continued.

Alistair also noted, "The fact that the market is so busy, there are so many opportunities because there’s no geographic barrier. If you don't take care of your people, they just jump ship.”

Another component of onboarding for an employer to consider is the skills and competencies required in a remote, hybrid or distributed work environment. “The majority of people within companies were never interviewed with remote work in mind,” said Candace Giesbrecht, Teamit’s Director of the Remote Performance Academy. “A large percentage of employees within companies have big gaps in their abilities for this type of environment.”

“What happens with remote work is that your weaknesses, if not being done properly, get exaggerated. It’s like a magnification of your weaknesses,” says Shepherd-Cross. “Some leaders are struggling because they're not experienced on how to actually lead remote teams. It requires training in order to pull the best out of your team.”

Overall, companies need to assess not only their new hire practices, but also with the people they've already hired to make sure that they have skills and training to be successful in a remote or distributed workplace.

Have questions or looking for more insights? You can watch the one-hour webinar on-demand.

Interested in participating in the University of Calgary Research Project?

How is your team functioning? We’re currently supporting the University of Calgary in the recruitment of teams to participate in a research project.

This project involves studying the key determinants of work team effectiveness. There is no cost to participate and teams participating in the study will be invited to have their team members complete a voluntary and anonymous ~15-minute online survey involving questions related to experiences in their current work teams. Team members will receive a complimentary feedback report and debriefing meeting with the research team. Learn more about the study and how to participate.

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Chris Kane webinar recording

Get access to a one-hour webinar recording to hear from Chris Kane, the author of Where is My Office? Reimagining the Workplace for the 21st Century. Chris shares his insights on the future of work and revitalizing the workplace. Watch the webinar recording.


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Teamit helps growth-focused companies recruit top talent, scale quickly and build high performing technical teams in North America and South America.