Leading through conflict in virtual teams

a study of best practices


The reduced cost of bandwidth has made dispersed projects more common. These virtual projects rely heavily upon technology as a primary means of communication. If not properly handled, this new medium is subject to conflict. The project manager must be careful for common pitfalls, including lack of visual cues, culture biases, email interpretation, conference calls, and using old methods to resolve conflict in a new environment (Kayworth & Leidner, 2001/2, p. 8). The research presented a study of best practices of virtual project managers on methods of averting and resolving conflict situations in the virtual environment. In the study, there were two strategies for resolving virtual conflict. The first strategy was how a project manager predicted when conflict might occur and then the preparation for conflict during the team process. The second strategy was how to resolve conflict once it arose within a team.

Leading through conflict in a virtual team

Virtual project managers must understand the team stages of a virtual project. Understanding this process allows a project manager to anticipate the period most likely for conflict. Negative conflict results in both wasted time and lost productivity for a project because conflict costs the organization money and is a contributing cause of project delays. It is estimated that the cost of conflict, when including ineffective managing of interpersonal situations, conflict avoidance, and lost project days accounted for $20,000 per employee, per year in addition to 20-25% of a manager's time was spent dealing with team disagreements (Johnson & Johnson, 2000, p. 337). The virtual project manager must identify potential periods of conflict as well as understand strategies to cope with destructive conflict.


The following terms have been further clarified for the purposes of this paper: virtual (dispersed) project, project manager, project, and virtual (dispersed).

Virtual (dispersed) projects consist of more than 50% of the project team members not being resident in the same physical location. Team members depended on technology to communicate and met face-to-face no more than once every two weeks as a project team (Kelley, 2001; Townsend & DeMarie, 1998; Maznevski & Chudoba, 2000, Reinsch, 1999).

The project manager (PM) was the “individual responsible for managing a project” (PMI, 2000, p. 205).

A project was “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result” (PMI, 2000, p. 204).

Virtual (dispersed) for the purposes of this study was the technology to allow teams to collaborate, conduct business, share ideas, without the necessity to have continuous face-to-face meetings (Majchrzak, Malhotra, Stamps, & Lipnack, 2004).


The methodology consisted of a qualitative study of peer-reviewed articles and other books by experts in the last seven years. The literature review examined recent articles and books about leadership, technology, and the virtual environment. The review included information pertaining to the identification of periods of conflict as well as strategies to cope with conflict in virtual teams. Since few articles were found that directly addressed the issue of conflict resolution in the virtual environment, the literature review focused primarily upon peer-reviewed virtual leadership related information. The successful leadership strategies have been consolidated to characterize which strategies are most prevalent in the current literature. By reviewing the available literature, it was possible to compile a merged list of expert recommendations (Creswell, 2000).

The current literature was compared to the Duarte & Snyder (2001) strategies for successful virtual teams in order to determine the strength of agreement of these leadership factors by other experts. These factors included if the leader modeled the expected behavior, if the leader held high expectations for team members, and if the leader garnered and allocated sufficient technology, training and resources for the project (Duarte & Snyder, 2001). The research used the following scoring system to determine the strength of agreement (or disagreement) by experts in virtual teams. If an expert agreed, a score of one was assigned. If the expert was silent on the point, a score of zero was assigned. If the expert disagreed, a score of negative one was assigned. The mean was calculated to determine the relative strength of agreement by the experts. The standard deviation was calculated from the range of scores to determine how much the experts were in agreement regarding all of these virtual leadership factors.

Statement of Problem

Many trained and experienced project managers are versed in the areas of conflict and conflict resolutions for traditional face-to-face projects. However, there was little documentation regarding effective methods to resolve conflict on a virtual team. Since, the virtual PM has minimal verbal and non-verbal cues to pending conflict, a PM must anticipate the most likely time for a team to experience conflict. Additionally, the PM should be aware of the best practices of the experts in order to determine what might work best for his/her team situation.


Conflict can happen in any team at any time, so the prudent PM should anticipate conflict within his/her teams. Sometimes conflict can be constructive, such as the conflict that comes when groups establish their roles within the team (Johnson & Johnson, 2000). Conflict can also be destructive, such as when team members do not cooperate and team members actively undermine each other's efforts. Excessive internal competition within a virtual team tended to erode trust and increased the possibility for conflict (Lipnack & Stamps, 2000, p. 219). Team members must overcome communication issues due to technological constraints (Furst, Reeves, Rosen & Blackburn, 2004, p. 7).

Another of the many challenges within the virtual community was the resolution of conflict and the skills necessary for the environment. Individual companies may assume that conflict may be the same in the virtual environment, and the skills necessary are similar to those of a traditional brick-and-mortar company. By assuming that the skills necessary are the same as traditional teams, the PM may inadvertently make some critical mistakes.

Critical differences of virtual teams

The PM must have an understanding of the critical differences between teams and virtual teams. A traditional team communicated directly through face-to-face contact. This direct communication included body language, tone, and other visual cues, which were important elements of communication (Duarte & Snyder, p. 142). Virtual teams regularly contended with the lack of direct contact and relied upon indirect communication, in the form of telephone calls, emails, faxes, and other technologically based methods (Furst, Reeves, Rosen & Blackburn, 2004, p. 7).

The virtual environment required that communication be clearer and more concise. Technology could not replace poor communication; in fact, effective communication was one of the most critical elements of a virtual team (Cascio, 2000, Duarte & Snyder, 2001, Scholz, 1998). Furthermore, the leaders of the organization must support the virtual team by providing the necessary technological resources for these types of projects (Duarte & Snyder, 2001). To overcome these challenges of the virtual environment, many studies and documented practical experiences emphasized the need for trust in the virtual environment (Handy, 1995; Duarte & Snyder, 2001).

Presentation and analysis of study

Toney's (1999) study established a best practice for the PM as a person who “adapts the application of best practices and competencies to different cultures” (p. 73). The successful PM understood the needs of the members and adapted rules and regulations to increase the relationship and trust among the members and between leader and member (Handy, 1995; Duarte & Snyder, 2001; Lipnack & Stamps, 2000). Duarte and Snyder (2001) in their studies found that the successful virtual PM was competent and adept at the following: developing and transitioning team members, developing and adapting organizational processes to meet the team's needs, allowing leadership to transition when appropriate, and ensuring the team received appropriate training for virtual communications and technology and skill sets (Duarte & Snyder, 2001). Toney (1999) and Duarte & Snyder (2001) emphasized the need of the PM to be transformational, to understand the needs of the team members, and to pass on knowledge so that the project was successful.

The PM should establish metrics that measures team performance. These metrics should institute high expectations to encourage the extra effort required to overcome the communication hurdles (Duarte & Snyder, 2001). As the team becomes familiar with the team expectations and the performance metrics, the amount of undesirable conflict should be reduced. It is important that these metrics be tied to important milestones and should involve appropriate incentives and celebrations. Without this feedback to the team, the PM will appear to be a taskmaster bent upon increasing efficiency rather than a leader trying to achieve team success.

The data supported that technology was necessary for a successful team. However, state of the art technology was not necessary for success. Access to comparable electronic communication technology was important, however, there was no research found that supported the need to have state of the art equipment (Gorelick, 2000; Kayworth & Leidner, 2001/2).

Strategies to predict virtual team conflict before it occurs

Understanding the development process of a virtual team can aid in knowing when conflict will occur. Tuckman's model defined five phases of team development as forming, norming, storming, performing, and adjourning (Tuckman, 1995; Johnson & Johnson, 2000, p. 31). Identifying these distinctions in the virtual team process can assist a PM in avoiding disruptive conflict. This model of group development described by Tuckman had applicability to virtual teams. Research conducted by Joy-Matthews and Gladstone (2000) supported the use of the Tuckman model in the formation of virtual teams as well as documenting when virtual teams circumvented one of these sequential steps, these teams were not as successful. Furthermore, Duarte and Snyder (2001) defined similar elements to the Tuckman sequential team model, in their model of the virtual team process. Lipnack and Stamps (2000) agreed that the Tuckman model can be applied successfully to virtual teams.

Research (Curlee & Gordon, 2004) indicated that the brick-and-mortar PM faced conflict during the forming and storming stages of the Tuckman model, which was the same as the virtual PM. The literature review emphasized that in the virtual environment trust was essential for effective management. Previous survey results (Curlee & Gordon, 2004) corroborated this by demonstrating the need for the PM to be competent by effectively communicating with customers, teams, and setting high expectations. It can be reasonably concluded that a competent PM will gain the trust of team members (Duarte & Snyder, 2001, p. 83; Brown, Poole, & Rodgers, 2004; Jarvenpaa & Leidner, 1999). Since the forming and storming stages are the first two phases of a project team's life, the team has not been able to establish the necessary trust with the project manager. It may be effective for the PM to meet face-to-face (electronically or traditionally) and demonstrate competence as a PM to increase the trust quotient.

The forming and storming phases were the two most likely where internal group conflict occurred (Tuckman, 1995, p. 356-7). In these phases, a PM must establish a clear group hierarchy to avoid conflict (Johnson & Johnson, 2000, p. 31). These roles shaped a person's future contribution to the group. A PM that is working virtually should expect conflict during the team formation process (Curlee & Gordon, 2004). Communication limitations exist in the virtual environment so the PM must plan to compensate for this initial formation delay. Teams start to form and individuals must learn to interact in the new environment. The distance and possible cultural obstacles can retard the initial team formation. Individuals that are unfamiliar with each other will take time to get to know one another. Usually this kind of formation occurs naturally through contact within an office. Without this kind of interaction, virtual teams may form slowly as people become more familiar with one another. Majchrzak, Malhotra, Stamps, and Lipnack (2004, p. 137) found that the formation of small teams within the team helped the overall virtual team become more successful. Curlee and Gordon (2004) survey results also suggested that the conflict was mitigated by smaller, agile, and successful teams.

A PM can avoid conflict during the forming stage by increased initial contact and by communicating the initial project plan. An initial face-to-face meeting of all team members to discuss the project and to allow individuals to have an initial understanding of each other is one successful strategy to avoid conflict during the forming stage (Lipnack & Stamps, 2000, p. 222–223). The PM must link the introductions along with the communication of the project plan because pleasant group contact will not decrease intergroup tension (Johnson & Johnson, 2000, p. 434). Another important factor in this initial stage, whether done face-to-face or virtually is the introductory communication. If conflict does occur, the PM should act as a mediator to resolve conflict (Johnson & Johnson, 2000, p. 31-32).

Intragroup conflict in the storming phase is common (Tuckman, 1995, p. 357). As individuals are learning their role and responsibilities, they will usually make mistakes. As communication is slower and less robust in the virtual environment, individuals may misinterpret these issues. Therefore, a PM should plan on resolving conflict between team members. In the storming phase, a PM must expect people to disagree, as individual responsibilities become clearer.

In order to mitigate this conflict, a PM must take steps to clearly define expectations, expected tasks, deadlines, and ramifications (PMI, 2000). The better individuals understand their role, the less likely they will clash with others. Additionally, when everyone is aware of what is required of each individual on the team, there is less of a concern that some people are performing below expectations. When tasks are agreed upon up front, then there are fewer points of conflict due to ambiguity (Duarte & Snyder, 2001, p. 75).

Another recommendation is for the PM to use a project plan to manage the virtual aspect of the team, as well as creating a project plan for the team goal (Curlee & Gordon, 2004). The PM in effect has to manage two projects while leading a virtual team. The virtual team PM should also plan to build a timeline and project plan for the project as well as one for the virtual environment. By creating two separate documents, it helps outline the process and expectations of the virtual team, but it also creates a performance document where team members can anticipate potential problems in the virtual environment. This document will also help keep the goals of the team in focus while explaining the challenges that might arise. Team members can then become committed to the project as well as being accountable for their actions (Johnson & Johnson, 2000, p. 33).

Strategies to resolve virtual team conflict when it occurs

The virtual team deals with temporal issues. Most virtual teams deal with asynchronous environment and use various techniques to stay current with the other team members, including synchronizing email/databases and conducting meetings at periodic intervals (Montoya-Weiss, Massey, & Song, 2001). This may lead to confusion and tension within the team, which in turn leads to conflict. Merriman, Schmidt, Ross, and Dunlap-Hinkler's (2004) research found that virtual relationships were difficult to develop trust. Therefore, the virtual team will have difficulties in resolving team conflict.

The project manager has to be able to develop trust from the onset of the project or the forming stage. Curlee and Gordon's (2004) research showed that conflict happens during the forming stage. The project manager should demonstrate his/her competencies in project management. The project manager should be direct and provide an authoritative “persona” at this stage (Furst, Reeves, Rosen, &Blackburn, 2004). The project manager should ensure the team has been introduced and understands the project charter, project mission, and ensure that project documents are available online and are up-to-date. The project manager should also often include the sponsor and the senior management. This will encourage trust in the project manager and management. During this phase, it would also benefit to have face-to-face meetings whenever possible.

The project manager should confront conflict quickly. This will lead the team to cohesiveness and to approach the norming phase. As the team shifts into the storming phase, the project manager should slowly shift the leadership to encouragement of team building and holding individuals accountable for deadlines and deliverables. The project manager should be aware that he/she may have to remove disruptive individuals from the team. During the performing stage, the project manager should shift the leadership to focus on removing barriers that the virtual team may encounter at the “home office” or with bureaucracy on the team.

Analysis of team process data

By analyzing the successful strategies of leadership and determining the relative strengths of these factors when compared to the experts, it offers a view towards what leadership strategies are most successful in virtual teams. In total, twenty peer reviewed articles or texts pertaining to virtual project management that discussed leadership were identified. The table below offers, in order of strength, the level of agreement by other experts.

Leadership (as adapted from Duarte & Snyder, 2001)

Leaders model behaviors such as working across boundaries and using technology effectively Leaders set high expectations for virtual performance Leaders allocate resources for the training and technology associated with virtual teams Leaders help gain the support of customers and other stakeholders
Mean .60 .55 .45 .40

The range of agreement was very narrow as the standard deviation of the leadership means was .09. Additionally, the overall average of the means was 0.50 making for a 50% agreement of the factors in general. Essentially, on average, the experts agreed with two of the four factors for successful leadership of virtual teams. This shows a high degree of agreement of these success factors by unrelated experts in the field of virtual leadership.

Summary and Recommendations

The findings of this study demonstrated the importance of the project manager's ability to lead, communicate effectively, and to ensure sufficient technology was available. The research showed that a successful PM should prepare for the typical periods of conflict, ensure that appropriate technology was available as well as creating an atmosphere of trust. In addition, it is recommended that the PM create two project plans, one for the virtual aspect of the project and another project plan for the organizational objectives.

The research indicated that project managers, virtual and non-virtual, faced conflict during the forming and storming stages of the Tuckman model. A competent PM should take efforts to gain the trust of team members early on in the project (Duarte & Snyder, 2001, p. 83; Brown, Poole, & Rodgers, 2004; Jarvenpaa & Leidner, 1999). Since the forming and storming stages are the first two phases of a project team's life, the team has not been able to establish the necessary trust with the project manager. It may be effective for the PM to meet face-to-face (electronically or traditionally) and demonstrate competence as a PM to increase the trust quotient.

The virtual project manager should ensure that all team members have compatible technology as well as, training on working with different cultures. The virtual project should quickly organize databases that allow sharing and learning. Duarte and Snyder (2001) recommended establishing “shared lessons, databases, knowledge repositories, and chat rooms” (p. 17) to enhance virtual teams' learning opportunities. This is also supported by Toney (2002), who stated, “the best practices project organization has a personalized development and training program based on identification of skills and competencies needed by the individual or group” (p. 241).

As demonstrated by this research, the virtual environment can be confusing to first timers, as well as some veterans. Because of this potential confusion, the PM should adopt standard processes within the team, which are adapted for the virtual organization, as necessary. In addition, there should be agreed upon soft processes for the virtual environment, including items such as conflict-resolution and communication (Duarte & Snyder, 2001). The project manager and the team members should also be competent and understand the importance behind the standardization. Toney (2002) states, “Project teams are more efficient when utilizing a repeatable and predictable approach” (p. 183). Therefore, adopting a predictable approach will assist in avoiding misunderstandings about process as a reason for conflict.

The team process data supported the transformational leadership model as one of the effective styles. The research supported the need for high expectations of the team members and modeling appropriate team behavior (Curlee & Gordon, 2004). In addition, the transformational leader is able to lead a team with disparate views and ideas towards a common objective. These elements relate to the transformational leadership style, and hence, this style should be considered for use in the virtual environment by a PM.

In conclusion, the field of conflict resolution in virtual teams is still open to new research. Further studies of virtual groups are necessary in the areas of conflict management, leadership, and technology to better understand the interdependencies between these different factors. Furthermore, additional investigation is needed to understand how successful virtual project managers implemented strategies of conflict management that differ from traditional teams.


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Cascio, W. (2000). Managing a virtual workplace. The Academy of management Executive, 14(3), 81. Retrieved May 10, 2004, from Infotrac.

Creswell, J. (2003). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA:Sage Publications, Inc.

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Duarte, D., & Snyder, N. (2001). Mastering virtual teams (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Furst, S., Reeves, M., Rosen, B. and Blackburn, R. (2004). Managing the life cycle of virtual teams. The Academy of Management Executive, 18 (2). Retrieved August 21, 2004, from Infotrac.

Gorelick, (2000). Toward an understanding of organizational learning and collaborative technology: A case study of structuration and sensemaking in a virtual project team. ProQuest Digital Dissertations (UMI No. 9973090).

Jarvenpaa, S. & Leidner, D. (1999). Communication and trust in global virtual teams. Organization Science: A Journal of the Institute of Management Sciences, 10(6), 791. Retrieved July 28, 2004, from ProQuest.

Johnson, D. & Johnson, F. (2000). Joining together: Group theory and group skills, Needham Heights, MA: A Pearson Education Company.

Joy-Matthews, J. & Gladstone, B. (2000, January 27). Extending the group: A strategy for virtual team formation. Industrial and commercial training, 32, pp. 24-29. Retrieved July 5, 2004, from EBSCOhost (Emerald) on the World Wide Web: http://www.apollolibrary.com

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Kelley, E. (2001). Keys to effective virtual global teams. Academy of Management Executives, 15(2), 132. Retrieved March 15, 2004, from Academy of Management.

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Majchrzak, A., Malhotra, A., Stamps, J., and Lipnack, J. (2004). Can absence make a team grow stronger? Harvard Business Review,(82)5, 131. Retrieved July 28, 2004, from EBSCOhost (Masterfile Premier).

Maznevski, M., & Chudoba, K. (2000). Bridging space over time: Global virtual team dynamics and effectiveness. Organization Science: A Journal of the Institute of Management Sciences, 11(5), 473. Retrieved May 24, 2004, from Business Source Premier.

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Montoya-Weiss, M., Massey, A., & Song, M. (2001). Getting it together: Temporal coordination and conflict management in global virtual teams. Academy of Management Journal, 44(6), 1251. Retrieved September 8, 2004, from Academy of Management.

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Tuckman, B. W. (1995). Developmental sequence in small groups. In T. Wren (Ed.), The leader's companion: Insights on leadership through the ages, pp. 355-359. New York: The Free Press.

©2004, Curlee & Gordon
Originally published as a part of 2004 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Buenos Aires, Argentina



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