Leading through conflict in a virtual team


Today, bandwidth is less of an issue and dispersed projects are becoming more common. These dispersed projects have to rely more upon technology as a primary means of communication. If not properly handled, this new medium is ripe with the potential for 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 provides data regarding the identification of project team conflict periods as well as effective leadership methods to resolve conflict in the virtual environment. The quantitative research applied the Duarte and Snyder (2001) virtual team assessment to correlate significant successful strategies in managing the virtual environment. These strategies identify methods to successfully resolve potential conflict before it occurs within a virtual project 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 project, project manager, project, and virtual.

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


The methodology consisted of quantitative research of successful project managers in the virtual environment and a literature review of relevant information on virtual teams. The quantitative research reviewed the opinions of virtual project managers involved in a cross section of industries. A survey instrument adapted from Duarte & Snyder (2001) was completed by the project managers. A Likert-style survey collected quantitative data regarding the operations of a virtual project team. The project managers responded with information about one virtual project they participated on within the last year. The project managers provided data about the projects, including training, competencies, technology, and leadership.

The survey targeted the project management community via the Project Management Institute's Program Management Organizations Significant Interest Group (PMOSIG) website. The sample size of the study consisted of the 861 members of the PMOSIG and 63 other known virtual project managers, for a total of 924. Of the 924 project managers contacted, there were 93 usable surveys. A chi-square analysis was completed on the usable surveys to determine statistically significant statements representative of the virtual community. The chi-square analysis established the fitness for use and to establish the factors that had the strongest correlation (Creswell, 2003). For the purposes of this study, levels of significance (LOS) of 0.001 were considered significant.

The literature review examined recent articles and books about 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. This literature review focused primarily upon peer-reviewed information published within the last seven years.

One 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. This quantitative research study identified the skills necessary for a successful virtual project manager.

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 clues to pending conflict, a PM must anticipate the most likely time for a team to experience conflict. In the review of the current literature, there was minimal direct information available for a virtual PM to identify and cope with conflict in virtual groups. Therefore, a PM should understand what competencies are most important for the success of a virtual project (Kayworth & Leidner, 2001/2).


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).

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 Data

The data collected found that three of the four highest correlated questions pertained to the project managers' competency and how they led. Duarte & Snyder (2001) and Kayworth & Leinder (2001/2) both identified leadership as a major component of a successful virtual team. The final correlated question pertained to the availability of technology. Kayworth & Leinder (2001/2) concurred that team members required a high commitment of time when training with technology (p. 10). The top four attributes of successful virtual project managers are detailed below in Exhibit 1. The data showed that successful project managers in the virtual environment were most tightly correlated with the following attributes: virtual project managers gained support of stakeholders, had experience with dealing with cross-cultural teams, established high expectations, and technology had to be consistent and available to all virtual team members.

Leadership, competency, technology

Exhibit 1 – Leadership, competency, technology

The data supported that leadership was critical for the success of virtual teams. However, task leadership was not sufficient for success in the virtual environment (Lipnack & Stamps, 2000, p. 222). Lipnack & Stamps (2000) discussed the importance of identifying the virtual team along with the extended network of experts (stakeholders) that supported the group (p. 219). The PM identified these stakeholders and gained their support in order to make the project successful. The creation of a stakeholder matrix outlining level of participation, roles, and contact information was important to allow all team members to understand what resources were available to the team (Lipnack & Stamps, 2000, p. 220). Furthermore, Duarte & Snyder (2001) believed that successful virtual project managers gained support of customers and stakeholders.

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.

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).

Virtual team process

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.

The first phase of the Tuckman model was the forming stage. In the forming stage, team members were uncertain of their roles and responsibilities (Johnson & Johnson, 2000, p. 30). Because people were looking for a climate of acceptance, safety, and leadership, it was likely that there would be some conflict during this period (Tuckman, 1995, p. 356). In the forming stage, the generation of ideas and team goal definitions occurred, as well as the initial discussion of the project plan (Duarte & Snyder, 2001, pp. 181-182).

The second stage was the storming phase where internal group conflict occurred (Tuckman, 1995, p. 357). As all members of the group were trying to understand the hierarchy and leadership, individuals compete and conflict while establishing a group hierarchy (Johnson & Johnson, 2000, p. 31). This was the stage where conflict was most likely to occur. In this process, the team revealed its leadership style, as individuals positioned themselves within the group. As conflict was resolved, individuals assumed set roles within the organization. These roles shaped a person's future contribution to the group. The team found ways to resolve the opposing views of various team members. Furthermore, a virtual project team overcame the technical and cultural challenges that arose due to the power differences and relationships (Duarte & Snyder, 2001, p. 181).

The third stage was norming, where the group became a more cohesive entity (Tuckman, 1995, p. 357). Members understood each other's roles, and individuals understood their roles within the group (Johnson & Johnson, 2000, p. 31). Members were familiar with leadership and with each other; therefore, interpersonal development grew (Tuckman, 1995, p. 357).

The fourth stage was performing, where team members began to efficiently work together (Johnson & Johnson, 2000, p. 31). The team no longer muddled through situations, as all team members knew their roles and responsibilities (Tuckman, 1995, pp. 357-358). The fourth stage did not exist in a single objective virtual project team (Duarte & Snyder, 2001).

The final stage was adjourning (Johnson & Johnson, 2000, p. 31). This occurred when a team completed its tasks, and the group was no longer necessary. The group then disbanded and moved on to the next project.

Conflict resolution strategies for virtual project managers

Based upon the Tuckman model, conflict was most likely to occur in the forming and storming phases of team development. A PM should anticipate potential conflict during these times and should plan to spend time during these stages intervening and mediating conflict (Johnson & Johnson, 2000, p. 31-32). The PM should familiarize themselves with the early signs of conflict within a virtual team in order to intervene and correct these problems before they negatively influence the project.

A PM that is working virtually should expect conflict during the team formation process. 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. This observation along with the findings of this study would suggest that the conflict helped to define 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).

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 a repository for team learning. 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 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. Secondary research emphasized that in the virtual environment trust was essential for effective management. The survey results 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 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).

Another recommendation is for the PM use a project plan to manage the virtual aspect of the team, as well as creating a project plan for the team goal. 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). The concept of dual project management requires further study and research to understand the impacts and benefits.

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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©2004, Curlee & Gordon
Originally published as a part of 2004 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Anaheim, California



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