The impact of conflict on virtual teams’ performance

Conflict threatens the stability of relationships in organisations and teams; for virtual teams, conflict is a particularly threatening factor. Given the lack of personal communication, time zone differences and external factors, virtual teams require adjusting conventional conflict resolution techniques to technology-supported conditions of virtual teamwork.
Conflict and its impact on organisations and teams’ effectiveness has been the focus of many studies in the field of organisational psychology and sociology. However, the increasing globalisation trends and the growing integration opportunities have changed the essence of conflict in virtual organisations and teams. For “geographically and / or organisationally dispersed workers who work together using communication and information technologies to accomplish organisational tasks” (Samarah, Paul & Mykytyn 2002) even a small organisational may be a threat, preventing team members from embracing the benefits of effective collaboration and technologically-driven communication.
Conflict is usually defined as “a disagreement, both manifest and latent, among team members and implies incompatible goals or interests” (Kankanhalli, Tan & Wei 2007). In virtual teams, conflict is unavoidable and is the integral component of team members’ collective performance. “Conflict can have paradoxical effects on team decision-making and outcomes” (Holahan et al 2008).

Constructive conflict (task conflict) is expected to bring in a new vision of the problem, for constructive conflicts are usually associated with the need to review one problem from different perspectives; in its turn, destructive conflict (relationship conflict) is nothing else but the expression of team members’ emotional and psychological incompatibilities (Gamero, Gonzalez-Roma & Perio 2008; Holahan et al 2008).
The problem however, is not in conflict in itself, but in the fact that virtual teams are rarely capable of evaluating the potential impact of conflict on their performance effectiveness. Time zone differences, communication delays, and space-time dispersion hinder the development of understanding between virtual team members (Guillot 2002; Kankanhalli, Tan & Wei 2007), and whether virtual teams are capable of establishing consensual organisational relationships will depend on their ability to manage conflict in the conditions of member remoteness and technology-supported interaction.
Objectively, the presence of technological barriers and the absence of face-to-face contacts do not make virtual conflicts too different from those in conventional organisations. What happens in reality is that virtual teams fail to find agreement and to adjust traditional conflict resolution techniques to the needs and objectives of virtual teams’ performance. Given the lack of personal communication, it is critical that virtual team members are able to manage their organisational conflicts in ways that do not turn task conflicts into relationship disagreements, which are extremely dangerous for the stability of organisational interrelationships in globalised space.
Gamero, N, Gonzalez-Roma, V & Perio, JM 2008, ‘The influence of intra-team conflict on
work teams’ affective climate: a longitudinal study’, Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, vol. 81, pp. 47-69.
Guillot, TL 2002, Team building in a virtual environment: teams & quality, American
Society for Training and Development.
Holahan, P, Mooney, S, Mayer, R & Paul, LF 2008, ‘Do debates get more heated in
cyberspace? Team conflict’, Current Issues in Technology Management, vol. 12, no. 2, pp. 1-4.

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