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Perspective: Managing Virtual Team Conflict

Woman experiencing Zoom fatigue

Gail Fann Thomas

Conflict Management

High performing teams are good at managing conflict. We know that every team will face differences of opinions or perspectives if they are engaged in a task that matters to them. Being able to manage those differences in a productive way can lead to better outcomes for the team and the organization.  This article provides some of the basics around conflict management for teams and provides a short case that can be used as a class exercise.

Conflict management happens when “the condition in which people’s concerns – the things they care about – appear to be incompatible” (Thomas, 2002).  Research shows that people engage in conflict an average of 2.8 hours per week (Hayes, 2008). Examples of conflict include differences in setting priorities, ascertaining workload,  establishing decision processes, and determining roles and responsibilities. 

When conflict is managed well, teams reap numerous benefits. It can encourage innovation, improve decisions, increase productivity, strengthen relationships, and yield more effective outcomes. On the other hand, poorly management conflict often results in project delays, anger, frustration, poor morale, reduced trust, litigation, and failed outcomes.

Scholars have identified several types of conflict including task conflict which includes differing ideas or opinions about substantive issues; relationship conflict which include clashes due to interpersonal issues; and process conflict which includes disagreements about timing, roles, responsibilities, and how things get done (Jehn, Greer, Levine, & Szulanski, 2008). 

We know that complex tasks generally benefit from a moderate level of conflict – too little can result in group think; too much can lead to team dysfunction.  A moderate level of conflict allows team members to share their differences and creates an environment were people feel heard and their ideas valued. While task conflict can be very useful if managed well, interpersonal and process conflict is generally not advantageous (Gallo, 2017).

Conflict Handling Modes

Several scholars have identified somewhat similar approaches for handling conflict (Knapp, Putnam, & Davis, 1988; Rahim, 1983; Rahim, 2010; Tjosvold & Johnson, 1989; Van deVliert & Kabanoff, 1990).  Thomas’s (1988 ) model includes five modes that align across two dimensions:  assertiveness when an actor is attempting to address one’s own concerns and cooperativeness when an actor attempts to satisfy another person’s concerns (see Figure 1). 

Figure 1.  The Five Conflict-Handling Modes

Source:  Thomas, K.W. (2002).  Introduction to Conflict Management.  CPP, Inc.

The two dimensions create the five modes:

Competing (high assertive and low cooperativeness) occurs when someone asserts a position or defends a decision that seems correct. A person high in competing does not yield to other’s points of view.

Avoiding (low assertiveness and low cooperativeness) occurs when someone sidesteps or postpones an issue. Avoiding can be advantageous when emotions are high, or timing is not the best for addressing a conflict.

Accommodating (low assertiveness and high cooperativeness) occurs when someone is focused on satisfying other actors’ concerns or yields to other’s points of view. Accommodating is especially useful for creating goodwill with others.

Compromising (mid-level assertiveness and mid-level cooperativeness) occurs when someone works to find mutually acceptable solutions or splits the difference.  Compromising, while useful, is not often ideal because actors are only getting part of their concerns addressed.

Collaborating (high assertiveness and high cooperativeness) occurs when actors work with other actors  to find a solution that would satisfy as many concerns as possible for all the parties involved in the conflict.

Thomas and Thomas (2010) suggest that team members become aware of all five modes, know when to use each one, and learn to use the modes that are most suited for the task at hand.

Virtual Teams During COVID-19

While teams have worked virtually for many years, COVID-19 has increased organizations’ reliance on virtual work. According to a Gallup study (Morgan & Hickman, 2020) the number of remote workers in the U.S. doubled between April and May 2020.  The study also found that 55% of the managers who were surveyed say that they will allow their employees to continue to work from home more often than they did before COVID-19.

While face-to-face teamwork can be challenging, virtual teaming can be even more difficult especially under the stresses of a pandemic.  Numerous scholars have studied virtual team effectiveness. Recently Schulze and Krumm (2017) created a synthesis of knowledge, skills, abilities, and other characteristics (KSAO’s) that are needed by virtual team members.  They found six KSAO clusters: 

Team Conflict Scenario

Before the pandemic, all your team members were working face-to-face in an office setting. In mid-March 2020 all members were required to work remotely.  It’s early November and the company is projecting that all work will continue to be remote through the summer of 2021 and perhaps indefinitely.  Your team develops software.  Phase one of your current project is due December 15, 2020. 

You have just been hired as the new team lead and you learn that your team is having difficulties working with one another.  These difficulties have caused hurt feelings, poor morale, and the project is behind schedule.  Before you arrived, a consultant was hired to diagnose your team’s issues and make suggestions for professional development.  Topping the list was a need to focus on effective conflict handling.  Each of your team members and you have taken a conflict handling assessment. 

Figure 2  shows the scores for each of your team members.  “H” means that the member is high in that mode and may even have a tendency to overuse the mode.  “L” means that the member is low in the use of that mode and the member may have a tendency to underuse that mode. “M” is medium use of the mode – neither underuse nor overuse of the mode.  

You know that most of the tasks that face this team are complex and require the knowledge and skills of all of team members.  You recognize that building stronger collaborative skills will be important to your team’s success.    

Figure 2.  Team Conflict-Handling Ratings

Discussion Questions:

  1. What can you say about the conflict behavior that might be present given this team’s conflict handling profile? Where might the team be overusing and underusing the various modes?
  2. What additional team factors might need to be considered during COVIID-19? How might you discern COVID stressors that might be impacting your team? What can you do about any stressors that might exist?
  3. You’ve observed process and interpersonal conflict issues with your team.  How might you address and minimize process and interpersonal conflict for your team?
  4. What is required to build collaborative skills among your team members?  How might you go about strengthening these skills for your team?


Gallo, A. (2017).  Harvard Business Review Guide to Dealing with Conflict. Harvard Business School Press.

Hayes, J. (2008, July).  Workplace Conflict and How Businesses Can Harness It to Thrive. CPP Global Human Captial Report. CPP inc.

Jehn, K. A., Greer, L., Levine, S., & Szulanski, G. (2008). The effects of conflict types, dimensions, and emergent states on group outcomes. Group Decision and Negotiation, 17, 465-495.

Knapp, M. L., Putnam, L. L., & Davis, L. J. (1988). Measuring interpersonal conflict in organizations: Where do we go from here? Management Communication Quarterly, 1, 414-129.

Morgan, I. & Hickman, A. (October 2020). Redefine (Don’t redesign) your culture for the virtual workplace.

Rahim, M. A. (1983). A measure of styles of handling interpersonal conflict. Academy of Management Journal, 26, 368-376.

Rahim, M. A. (2010). Managing conflict in organizations. Transaction Publishers.

Schulze, J., & Krumm, S. (2017). The “virtual team player” A review and initial model of knowledge, skills, abilities, and other characteristics for virtual collaboration. Organizational Psychology Review7(1), 66-95.

Thomas, K. W. (1988). The conflict-handling modes: Toward more precise theory. Management Communication Quarterly1(3), 430-436.

Thomas, K.W. (2002).  Introduction to Conflict Management.  Consulting Psychologist Press, Inc.

Thomas, K.W. & Thomas, G.F. (2004).  Introduction to Conflict and Teams.  Consulting Psychologist Press, Inc.

Tjosvold, D., & Johnson, D. W. (1989). Productive conflict management: Perspectives for organizations. Minneapolis: Team Media.

Van de Vliert, E., & Kabanoff, B. (1990). Toward theory-based measures of conflict management. Academy of Management Journal, 33,199-209.

Zhao, E. Y., Thatcher, S. M., & Jehn, K. A. (2019). Instigating, engaging in, and managing group conflict: A review of the literature addressing the critical role of the leader in group conflict. Academy of Management Annals13(1), 112-147.

Author Biography

Gail Fann Thomas joined the faculty at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) in 1989 where she has taught graduate courses in managerial communication, high-performing teams, and inter-agency collaboration. In 2005 Gail designed a Strategic Communication Workshop for NPS’s Center for Executive Education where more than 350 teams throughout the Department of Defense have conducted strategic communication planning for their organizations. She has published in several academic journals, co-authored training materials on conflict management, and most recently led sponsored research on leadership team effectiveness and issues related to sexual harassment and gender discrimination.

Recommended Citation

Gail F. Thomas. (2020). Perspective: Managing virtual team conflict. the Western ABC Bulletin, 2.2.

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