A little bit of healthy conflict is never a bad thing in software development.
Team members with different points of view often bring valuable new ideas to the table, which both encourages innovation and helps to improve products.
The keyword here is “healthy” because some types of unhealthy conflict are extremely damaging to team morale and productivity, especially among remote software development teams. Lindred Greer, Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, says that “Conflict in virtual teams is more likely to be negative for performance and is more likely to escalate.”
While remote work itself doesn’t lead to conflict, poor management of remote teams can lead to miscommunication, insecurity, and confusion, creating plenty of opportunities for negative interactions. In order to successfully avoid this, development teams need to embrace a proactive approach to communication and learn valuable conflict resolution skills.
Here are a few techniques for resolving conflicts constructively and, in the long term, reducing new points of conflict within the team.
Take Preventative Action by Drafting a Teamwork Agreement
Ask your teams to work together to draft a teamwork agreement that answers questions like “What’s an acceptable response time for an email?” or “How can I check on a team member’s progress on something?” This helps remote team members set expectations and reduce the number of unknown variables when working together.
When team members have already come to a consensus on how they want to work together, there is less chance of miscommunication and conflict.
Listen Carefully and Allow all Parties Involved to Tell Their Story
It’s critical to listen to all parties involved in a conflict and let them tell their story. This will bring clarity to the situation, revealing underlying issues and possible solutions. It also makes the involved team members feel heard and validated, giving them confidence that
Identify Gaps in Communication or Areas of Uncertainty
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There’s more chance for miscommunication in remote teams, especially in the case of software developers. For example, quick emails, short messages, and curt answers can sometimes cause misunderstandings without being properly addressed one-to-one. Remote team members also have an increased likelihood of experiencing the “online disinhibition effect”, a phenomenon where people say and do things online that they wouldn’t do in person.
To solve these challenges, analyze the way your team communicates and identify specific areas where it might be failing or causing friction. This method helps to identify patterns and common sources of conflict in your remote team.
Consider a Neutral Third-Party to Facilitate Discussions
It’s important to have a “tie-breaker” or a neutral third party who audits all the communications between remote team members in a conflict.
This person, either a manager or another team member, should also act as a facilitator, arranging the discussion and trying to resolve the issue. The facilitator must be completely neutral and not prone to taking sides.
For remote teams, a video call is the best way to have this discussion. It will allow for more nuanced, immediate communication, and help with achieving a productive resolution.
Facilitators should ideally confirm what all parties are saying by asking questions to confirm their own understanding, and even arrange further discussions to clarify details if necessary.
Once everyone reaches an acceptable compromise, the facilitator should send meeting notes and the terms of compromise in writing to everyone involved. This ensures that everyone has access to the same information, understands what has occurred, and agrees on how to move forward.
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Develop a Clear, Written Process for Handling Conflict
If you have a clear process to handle conflict, you and your team will have the confidence to handle it amicably.
Work with your team to draw up clear guidelines for resolving conflicts, and make sure the written guidelines are placed in an easily accessible, highly visible place like your team wiki.
Your process could look something like this:
- Identify and report the issue: Ask each of the team members to explain what the issue is from their perspective then schedule a meeting to discuss it further.
- Discussion: The relevant team members meet with a mediator to address their problems. All sides listen to each of the team members to clarify any miscommunications and come to a compromise. The mediator should also define the end goal of the discussion.
- Conclusion in writing: Write up the outcome of the discussion, including the terms of the compromise, for everyone to refer to in the future.
Ask your team to work together to write up unique guidelines that suit their preferred methods of conflict resolution—this collaborative effort might even help to solve a few conflicts on its own!
Every remote software development team has its own unique set of challenges and conflicts. Some conflicts can be because of personal incompatibility between developers, others might be because of differences in how team members think certain things should be done. In any case, conflicts usually don’t happen in a vacuum, so once you understand the source of conflicts, you can act to resolve them more easily and work on preventing similar conflicts in the future.