Virtual conflict resolution

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IT by its nature has various conflicting goals which can occasionally cause stress and conflict within IT.

IT by its nature has various conflicting goals which can occasionally cause stress and conflict within IT. As an example, people working in the datacenter are often judged on cost reduction, efficiency, and server consolidation while software developers often push for the maximum computer resources for their development and production environments. Both groups are right, but their jobs have different priorities.

Resolving a conflict with a fellow employee can be difficult, even under the best of circumstances. Imagine how difficult it can be if this fellow employee is in another country, in another time zone, reporting into a different management structure, have not previously established any real personal relationship, and you have never met face-to-face. This is the scenario facing individual contributors, managers, and senior executives that work on virtual teams for companies with international reach.

While many of the techniques discussed in this column can help resolve conflicts of all types, they are primarily designed to deal with conflicts that have the increased complication of physical distance.

Develop a relationship first
This suggestion takes two forms, pre and post conflict. In the pre-conflict form my suggestion is that when you are first asked to work with people in other physical locations, try to get to know them. This could be via a “let’s get acquainted” type introductory phone call under the auspices of “since we will be working together, we should get to know each other”. A twenty minute phone call of this type can pay great dividends when a conflict arises, because you have previously established a relationship with the person that hopefully created a little trust and goodwill.

In the post-conflict format, this assumes that either the conflict has caused you to reach out to the person for the first time or that you have been working together in some cursory way but never spoke by phone or Skype. In either case, rather than start your conversation in a confrontational way, begin with something such as:

• “Hi, my name’s Eric, I work in the XYZ department. Sorry that my first call to you is related to solving a problem we’re having, rather than something more interesting. Is now a good time for you to talk for a minute?”
• If he/she say’s “Yes”, continue with the conversation. If he/she says “No”, set up a specific time that is convenient both of you.

Then, continue with a little small talk with the hope of quickly establishing the beginnings of a positive business relationship by asking one or two easy to answer, non-confrontational questions such as:

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