On Our Minds

Working with so many organizations across multiple issue areas gives us a unique view into what’s happening in the social sector. This is where we share our insights and ruminations.
Resolving Remote Conflict
Strategies to manage workplace conflict in the age of Zoom

The pandemic reality of remote engagement has forced us to change the way we work and relate to our colleagues in so many ways — including conflict resolution. Heading off and managing personal conflict can be more difficult without the everyday rhythms and interactions of office life. 

Managing personal conflicts effectively and fairly is already a challenging issue in the workplace, and working remotely has made it that much harder. That’s because some of the safety valves we rely on when we interact face to face are harder to access. We can't go for a 15-minute coffee walk for a private conversation. We can't always read someone’s body language on a Zoom screen. When everything has to be scheduled, it’s harder to find time to figure things out on the fly.

While we try to avoid and mitigate it when we can, we understand that conflict is a natural and expected part of any workplace. And it’s a necessary and natural part of any relationship to understand how to confront and navigate it. When we’re disconnected physically, recognizing and discussing conflict can get away from us. But there are ways to fill the gap — you’ll just have to work a little harder.

Intention, structure, and content

Without the cues and tools we usually use to manage conflict, we have to be more intentional in addressing it and thoughtful about how we deal with it. This means recognizing and overcoming some of the drawbacks of interacting remotely.

The ways we engage when we work remotely are typically more formal than in the office. Everything is scheduled — even one-on-ones have a time and title on the calendar. The experience feels more transactional than in-person meetings so that the stakes feel higher, no matter what it is that you're talking about. 

There are two ways I’ve come up with to break through this formality, and these can help remote teams regain some of the more casual, natural, and effective ways we communicate important things when we are physically together. One is through structure. The other is through the content of the conversation.

With respect to structure, we all know that little things add up over time: small offenses, offhand slights. Without the space to have a conversation about those things, they can fester. So create frequent, regular one-on-one conversations with your teammates without an agenda. Just an informal time to talk about what's going on, what's working, what's not, and to give each other direct feedback. This “step back” space allows for the kinds of conflict that might otherwise be lost in day-to-day meetings to get some attention — to get diffused before they build up. 

From a content perspective, when your team is working remotely, you need to be really clear about what it is you’re communicating with respect to conflict. 

To get this clarity, we’ve often used a communications model called the ladder of inference. At the very bottom of the ladder are observable actions. These are the “facts of the case” — the things that actually happened. When we have conversations about conflict, we start with the facts because we want to make sure that both sides of the conflict understand what happened. One step up from the facts is the way what happened lands with one party or the other — the part they really heard.

Imagine you’re having this type of conversation: “When you said X, it made me feel Y.” It’s important when using this technique to relate it to yourself and your feelings. You don’t say, "When you said X, that was wrong." Or, "When you said X, that made the other person feel this way." Try as much as possible not to give absolute feedback — it’s about how the actions or words have landed with you.

The third step is creating space for interpretation by asking questions like: “Why did you say that?” “Where did it come from?” “Was it something that you thought would land differently?” Now you're able to talk about the interpretation of the other person’s intentions. You’re going from the facts, to your feelings, to interpretation. From there, you have a way to co-create an understanding with the other person, and hopefully find a resolution. 

Structuring conversations about conflict this way helps diffuse some of the raw emotion — the heat that can build up over time. It's a tool that I've used before, but I found I really had to sharpen it during the pandemic, when the nature of our interactions became very different.  

In a remote-working world, reflection and intentionality can help us make up for lost personal interactions.

The Takeaway

There are a lot of things that we’ll take with us from the way we worked through the pandemic. Our ability to handle conflict may be improved by the fact that we had to do it really intentionally when we were working remotely.

I used to think being physically present was a requirement for effectively managing conflict. What I found is that it’s a nice-to-have, but not a must-have. You can manage conflict remotely, successfully, and consistently by thinking about it intentionally and making the necessary space and time to address it.

  • For hiring teams, the key takeaway is to plan times to meet in unstructured ways on a regular basis that’s comfortable for you and your team — perhaps monthly. You’ll be touching base with the colleagues you work most closely with, where there's a higher number of interactions and a higher likelihood that things might have slipped by or are building up, especially in fast paced environments. You’ve got a lot going on, but make that “step back” time. You won’t regret it.
  • For candidates, identify one person in the hiring process who can serve as a trusted advisor. Unless the conflict is with that person, it allows you to talk through situations in a lower-pressure way than if you're talking to a hiring manager or a recruiter that you don't really know that well — and that may interpret your feelings about how the process is going in a way that is different from what you intended. Whatever you do, don’t let the conflict build up. Use the techniques we talked about to address it directly in a timely way. The people you’re working with will appreciate it.