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Technology Factors in Virtual Teams Leading to Conflict
Thesis Statement and Introduction
Virtual Teams (VTs) are group of individuals with a common goal that are separated geographically and communicate thru the use of technology (Pazos, 2012). Virtual teams open up a whole new world of possible reasons for conflicts and challenges to conflict resolution. Understanding the factors that lead to conflicts, the communication methods and the responsibility of Human Resources (HR) or the third party in conflict resolution is important to be able to develop effective understanding of conflict resolution in virtual teams.
Background of Research
The shift to flatter organizations, cost saving measures, globalization (Germain and McGuire, 2014), and the advancement of technology has led to the growth of the massive use of VTs. According to Peñarroja, Orengo, Zornoza, and Hernández, (2013), as teams become more virtual there is an increasing negative effect of collaborative behaviours and team trust. Many researches have correlated that conflict affect the performance of VTs in terms of decreasing it (Ayoko, Konrad and Boyle, 2012; Pazos, 2012; Moreno, Navarro, Zornoza and Ripoll, 2009). As a result of the very fast growth of the VTs usage, these teams are treated are regular face-to-face teams in terms of management, this has caused numerous conflicts and an increased concentration on research on this topic (Shin, 2005).
Dain et. al. (2012) argue that the essentials of team building are still there but globalization and technology are the new dimensions which is making it harder for managers. The three commonly discussed points in current researches on conflict resolution in virtual teams are trust, cultural diversity and communication medium or the technology responsible for establishing communication.
Comparison of Different Theories
It is highly likely that team members in a virtual team do not know each other. In this kind of situation it is possible that teams may not success if they do not trust each other, but the members are not aware of each other’s abilities and weakness living the members with no foundation to build trust. Germain and McGuire (2014) introduce the concept of swift trust. It is a short term trust that is built on the foundation of blind trust. Blind trust, as bad as it sounds, is an essential factor making virtual team work and avoid conflicts at the start of the project and get things goings.
The second point is cultural diversity. Stahl, Maznevski, Voigt and Jonsen (2010) have stated that cultural diversity in teams is both an asset and liability. It is the ability of the team to manage cultural diversity is key in avoiding conflicts. This point shall only be lightly discussed on this paper as it fairly huge topic in itself.
The third common point is the technology itself. As Drouin, Bourgault, and Gervais (2010) state that: “a number of studies showing that computer-mediated communication may be associated with an increase in intragroup conflict (p. 6).” Lyons, Priest, Wildman, Salas, and Carnegie (2009) add that it is due to the increased chances of misinterpretation.
A great deal of papers on virtual teams talk about avoiding conflict but according to Pazos (2012) says that aside from commitment to goals, an active involvement in conflict resolution leads to a higher performance.
Ayoko, Konrad and Boyle (2012) state that project. “VTs managed their conflict using mediation, apology, explanations, positive reinforcement, and feedback seeking behaviors (p. 172).” In their work the word mediation is being used interchangeably with conflict resolution. They also talk about that this kind of system must be available to the VTs. Shin (2005) introduces this concept through two distinct system fitted to the needs for both conflict resolution and mediation. He introduces the Virtual Negotiation System (VNS) which most closely matches conflict resolution since it includes the five conflict styles (Competition, Avoidance, Compromise, Accommodation and Collaboration); and Virtual Mediation System (VMS) which is for mediation. In both of this systems the third party can also be geographically dispersed.
Trust is considered a big component on all relationships, whether it is personal relationship or a working relationship. It is built overtime that is based on a person’s assessment of other person’s behavior (Tseng and Yeh, 2013). In VTs this is not possible because often all or some of the members of the team are new. Considering Tuckman’s Group Development Stages (Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing), will always bring the groups back to the storming phase every time a new member is added. In fact Harvey, Novicevic, and Garrison (2004), add that it happens in VTs within the time frame they are working not just when the teams are newly created for a new project. In the world of business, this means delays and in the view of conflict resolution more conflicts will occur. Earlier in this paper the concept of swift trust was pointed out. As a form a blind trust to get things going, but it also can fuel conflicts if each other’s expectations are not achieved. Since there is no factual basis on building trust, stereotyping and categorization can and is likely going to happen (Germain and McGuire, 2014). Thus, introducing a new avenue for conflicts. A point to be emphasized in this problem, caused by stereotyping and categorization, is that it may worsen conflicts or cause conflicts that are serious or cause permanent damage not just to the relationship but also the reputation of the persons involved. At the end of the day the problem of trust remains a problem whether it is going back to the storming phase every time just to develop trust or applying swift trust which causes new problems that ultimately end up in increased chances of conflict.
The main reason that technology can cause misunderstanding is best explained by Holtbrügge, Schillo, Rogers and Friedmann (2011) as they state: “As electronic media are only able to transmit para-verbal and non-verbal elements of messages to a very limited degree, the risk of misunderstandings and conflicts increases (p. 4).” In a simpler sense the words are being transmitted without the sub-contextual cues such as gestures that supplement during conversation without these, receivers of messages may not be able to tell the difference between a strong acceptance and a reluctant acceptance. During regular face-to-face discussion, a mere crossing of hands signals some sort of dissent which cannot be seen using a computer mediated communication, video conferencing may help but according to Moreno, Navarro, Zornoza and Ripoll (2009) little has been known about the benefits of videoconferencing in avoiding conflicts. Ayoko, Konrad and Boyle (2012) point that aside from the limitations of technology, conflicts can be aggravated due to communication delays caused by time zone differences or in message delivery problems.
Native languages can also play a role in further fueling conflict. People with different native language communicating in English will use different ways to say the same things as they will subconsciously match it with the structure of the native language causing delivering a different meaning than intended. Hsu and Chou (2009) presents that introducing the communicative genres (patterns) can help solve this problem in their statement: “an integration of communication interface that incorporating needed genres for learners to fluently and transparently coordinate is suggested to develop as having individuals to collaborate virtually (p. 10).” Considering the state of the current speech recognition technologies which fails to simply translate what is said in to written words, this is a long way and it make take decades before a working prototype can be developed. As of the moment, nothing can prevent language from causing conflicts. An added point to look at is sub-accent with in countries (i.e. USA, India). Often in large countries (but not always, it is possible in small countries too) there are different accents and ways of speaking the same language which pushes this cause for conflict in to deeper grounds by adding another layer of complexity.
Another problem with technology is its availability and accessibility. Availability is the resources that can be used in communication (i.e. device, internet access, etc.) while accessibility is being able to actually connect to the person, person may have all the resources but keeping them off or not answering the call would not allow any form of communication. This can fuel conflicts or during conflict resolution can allow a great and easy escape for avoiders. This is further supported by Furumo (2009) in his/her research he finds out that deserter are more likely to use the avoidant conflict management style than any other in VTs. However, the research also finds the use of avoidant conflict management style is not as significantly high as expected. Interestingly, the research also points that trust is also a vital factor that in making a team member an avoider. Avoiders present a big challenge in VTs because just to convince them or get them to conflict resolution is hard. It is because that you cannot just approach the avoiders personally or send a person to them, since if it would have been possible then it will befit the very purpose of creating a VT or would be otherwise be expensive; and attempting to call the avoider will not yield any result for the reason that he/she will not answer or reply to any communication attempt. Additionally distinguishing a person who is really an avoider from those who have poor connectivity would also present a challenge. Both of them will be showing the same signs for a certain time enough to cause undue conflict. These has also been pointed out earlier that any communication delay can increase the chances of conflict in this case carrying the assumption that the person is an avoider, even though the reality is he/she is having connectivity problems.
Before this point technology has been treated as able to get things done but not so perfectly. Thomas and Bostrom (2010) also gave a look at two simple but important points that further pushes technology as a vital factor in causing conflict. Firstly, they point to adequacy of technology whether it is able to do the task or not. Technology not being able to or partially do the task will place the pressure on person working, forcing him/her to use the manual paper and pen techniques or do endless adjustment causing more stress, fatigue and time. This seems to be the perfect environment to brew conflicts. And lastly the inadequacy of knowledge of using technology, this is another teeth-grinder. A great example of this is the mix of generational work force in the workplace today, there are lots of difference among the generation and one of which is technology literacy. Generally, millennials are defined as more tech savvy, followed by generation X which are considered as only tech literate and the baby boomers which have not grown to use technology and often prefer the same old ways. This presentation is enough to support the fact that this is another fertile ground for causing conflicts. In elaboration, millennials would love to do something on computers while Baby Boomers may not trust the output by this technology. Inadequacy of knowledge on technology does not just span in inter-generational situations but also it can still cause conflicts among the same generation. With so software systems today being so advanced that simple usage of those system with ignorance can cause major problems or possible financial losses to the establishments. Another problem that can cause conflict is that fact that there is a wide variety of software available for a certain task and the stereotypical expectation that if someone knows how to do a certain thing would mean that person know a certain kind of software regardless of the possibility of it can also be done on other systems as well. These two facts combined plus the idea of personal preference or expectation is enough to cause scenarios like “I am doing it the right way” or “You are doing it wrong”, thus leading to a possible conflict.
VNS (and VMS) is a great tool that uses technology in conflict resolution but upon further analyses the same problems can be identified with technology. Depending on the communication medium used, it still lacks the easily notable non-verbal cues that can be essentially used by the third party to work most proficiently. It still does not solve the problem of the avoiders which are going to be able to avoid conflicts. Additionally, language problem still remains in VNS proposing a heavy challenge on conflict resolution. Another concept that has come around is Virtual Human Resources Development (VHRD). It is the development of team members to learn how to handle HR related problems, inclusive of which conflict resolution. Human Resource Development experts are becoming partners rather than experts in solving business problems (Germain and McGuire, 2014). Tong, Yang, and Teo (2013) extends this notion that all team aside from the needs IT-related training must be trained in conflict resolution.
In whole of this paper, idea the technology failing to provide the full communication channel has been pointed out as a cause for conflict and or leading to other sub causes. But looking back, when there were no VTs, there were still conflicts. For convenience, this will be called natural conflict for this paragraph and conflict caused by the weakness of technology artificial conflict. Now the questions, comes How do you differentiate a natural and an artificial conflict? This is a great deal of concern because it will greatly affect the way conflict resolution would have to be conducted. An artificial conflict treated as a natural conflict will be attempted to be resolved in the wrong way. Again, this will introduce another avenue for a new and more complex conflict. The same thing will apply in the reverse situation, wherein the natural conflict will be treated as an artificial conflict. In this scenario, it can be said that it will not affect in a much harsher way than the latter but will still fail.
In this paper, various causes for conflicts were pointed out and as to why these causes are creating or fueling conflicts in VTs. Technology, trust, language were identified and analyzed as cause for conflict. Technology was identified as a cause for conflict due to its inherent weakness failing to provide a complete communication channel. Trust because there is no quick and easy way of establishing it. Language is another half of the communication problem in VTs because interpretations may fail to deliver the appropriate message. Additionally, the methods or systems that aim to respond to conflict were also put forth but it was later found that these methods or systems fall into the same trap or introduce problems that should not have occurred otherwise (i.e. stereotyping as a result of swift trust). And some systems have been visualized but are currently not possible to be built for now.
Conflict resolution in VTs is a great concern to big and small establishments. At the moment it is still new and the whole world is still learning on how to tackle the problems associated with VTs.
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