Organizational Dynamics, Vol. 34, No. 4, pp. 331–345, 2005 ß 2005 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. www.organizational-dynamics.


ISSN 0090-2616/$ – see frontmatter doi:10.1016/j.orgdyn.2005.08.002

Conflict Resolution in Virtual Teams
apid environmental changes and recent technological advances have triggered and accelerated the use of virtual teams. A virtual team is a collection of individuals who are geographically or otherwise dispersed, and who collaborate via communication and information technologies in order to accomplish a specific goal. A growing number of organizations are adopting virtual team systems to meet needs such as globalization, higher productivity, cost savings, and improved customer service. In spite of the rapid proliferation of virtual teams, very little attention has been paid to how they can function effectively. Theories on team processes have often been based on work conducted in nonvirtual teams. However, recent studies on virtual teams demonstrate that the way virtual teams manage internal conflict is critical to their success. Therefore, exploring what leads to conflict in virtual teams, and how it can be resolved, would not only contribute to the body of literature on conflict resolution but also help virtual teams enhance their effectiveness. Thus, the purpose of this paper is to explore sources of conflict in virtual teams and develop conflict resolution systems for such teams. In this paper, first the definition and the characteristics of a virtual team are addressed. Second, sources of conflict in virtual teams are identified. Third, virtual negotiation and mediation systems are introduced as conflict resolution mechanisms for virtual teams. Finally, ways of training con-


flict resolution skills in virtual settings are suggested.

A virtual team is a group of geographically dispersed employees who are assembled using a combination of telecommunication and information technologies for the purpose of accomplishing an organizational task. A virtual team, similar to face-to-face teams, is a group of people who interact to achieve a common purpose. However, unlike face-toface teams, virtual teams operate across space, time, culture, and organizational boundaries using electronic means. Companies such as Sun Microsystems Inc., Eastman Kodak Co., Tandem Services, and Intel Corp. have employed virtual teams that consist of geographically dispersed employees who band and disband quickly on a project basis. Similarly, Motorola Inc. has virtual teams, some of whose members never meet faceto-face, but work together on-line. Four dimensions that characterize virtual teams are spatial, temporal, cultural, and organizational dispersion. The spatial dispersion dimension refers to the extent to which team members work across different locations. The temporal dispersion dimension pertains to the degree to which team members operate at different times. The cultural dispersion dimension relates to the extent to which a team consists of employees from

Acknowledgments: I would like to thank Peter T. Coleman, Kerstin A. Aumann, Fred Luthans, and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and suggestions on previous versions of this article.

different countries or cultures. The organizational dispersion dimension refers to the degree to which team members work across organizational boundaries. A team becomes more virtual as it takes on more of these four characteristics. An example of the most extreme type of virtual team can be seen in a cross-organizational team composed of people from different organizations and countries who seldom if ever meet face-to-face (high on the spatial, temporal, cultural, and organizational dispersion dimensions). Buckman Laboratories, a manufacturer of specialty chemicals, possesses networks of virtual teams that constantly band and disband on a project basis. Buckman Laboratories’ global virtual teams are a good example of the extreme form of virtual team, in that they consist of employees who are culturally diverse (high on the cultural dispersion dimension) and geographically dispersed (high on the spatial dispersion dimension) and who operate asynchronously (high on the temporal dispersion dimension) across organizational boundaries (high on the organizational dispersion dimension). A less extreme type of virtual team is a distributed team that consists of employees from a single organization who operate in different locations. For instance, the mobile telecommunications research and development (R&D) team at Texas Instruments Inc. divided its members among locations in California, France, and Japan to achieve a 24-hour workday. This team exhibits a high degree of spatial, temporal, and cultural dispersion. However, it is low on the organizational dispersion dimension, since its members come from the same organization. Shell’s Oil Co.’s deepwater project team is another type of less extreme virtual team, in that it comprises experts and stakeholders from different organizations who work together in the same place to design and build drilling operations and pipelines (high on organizational dispersion but low on the spatial, temporal, and cultural dimensions). As noted earlier, virtual teams, unlike face-to-face teams, are heavily dependent

on electronic communication such as e-mail, intranet, and teleconference. The absence of face-to-face interaction in virtual teams may cause conflict with characteristics that differ markedly from conflict in face-to-face teams. Conflict, for instance, tends to occur more frequently in virtual contexts than in traditional settings. Moreover, research has demonstrated that virtual settings lead to more uninhibited behaviors than face-to-face contexts do. That is, virtual groups are more likely to engage in uninhibited behaviors such as swearing, insults, and name-calling than face-to-face groups. Thus, the sources of conflict as well as the nature of conflict may differ between virtual and face-to-face teams. The extent and effects of conflict in virtual teams depend on several contingency factors, which may differ from those of faceto-face teams. Therefore, it would be meaningful to explore sources of conflict in virtual teams and how they are distinguishable from conflict sources in face-to-face teams. The four characteristics of virtual teams will lead to different types of conflict. In the next section, sources of conflict associated with each virtuality characteristic are addressed.

Conflict is defined as a disagreement between two or more parties who are interdependent. Understanding of conflict and its sources in virtual teams is important in that workplace conflicts can affect employees’ emotion, cognitions, and behaviors as well as their organization’s productivity. Various levels of conflict – such as intergroup, interpersonal, and intrapersonal levels – exist in an organization. All these different levels of conflict can affect individuals in virtual teams. However, based on Masters and Albright’s conceptualization of workplace conflict (disagreement between two or more parties), this paper only focuses on interpersonal conflicts in virtual teams. Table 1 depicts sources of conflict associated with each virtuality dimension. Two of

VIRTUALITY DIMENSIONS Spatial dispersion Temporal dispersion Cultural dispersion Organizational dispersion




Task, role, responsibility ambiguity Lack of trust Task, role, responsibility ambiguity Lack of trust Cultural differences Lack of trust Weak identity Low group cohesiveness Lack of trust

the four virtual dimensions that characterize virtual teams are spatial and temporal dispersion. In spatially and temporally dispersed teams, members work without faceto-face interaction and direct supervision. In such an environment, it is difficult for team members to receive guidance or instruction on their tasks and roles from supervisors or peers. Moreover, they have fewer opportunities to clarify their tasks and roles than faceto-face team members. Therefore, virtual team members are more likely to experience task, role, and responsibility ambiguity. This ambiguity can be a source of conflict in virtual teams. A Chinese supervisee in a virtual project team in a global pharmaceutical company recently had a conflict with his manager in New Jersey. The supervisee needed intensive training from the manager because he had been assigned a new task. Although he found his task quite ambiguous, he was reluctant to call the manager frequently and ask her to clarify the task, since he was afraid of interrupting her at night. E-mailing is an alternative method of communication, but he needed to wait half a day for the manager to respond to his e-mail, due to the time difference between China and the United States. Lack of task clarification caused him to misunderstand the task objectives, which, as a result, led him to produce outputs quite different from what the management had expected. The supervisee found this situation frustrating and felt that his manager was also

responsible for the wrong outputs. He currently feels the necessity of discussing and resolving this issue with his manager. Another virtuality dimension is cultural dispersion, which refers to the extent to which a virtual team consists of individuals from different cultures. Virtual teams are usually composed of people from diverse backgrounds and cultures who have rarely met or worked with one another before. Such cultural differences among virtual team members may cause conflict. People from different cultures vary in terms of their values, personality, and work and communication styles. For instance, people from individualistic cultures put a heavier emphasis on the need, values, and goals of the individual than those of the group. In collectivistic cultures, the needs, values, and goals of the group take precedence over those of the individual. It should be noted that cultural differences could also be a source of conflict in face-to-face teams. However, cultural differences are more critical in virtual teams than in face-to-face teams, since virtual teams usually consist of more diverse members than face-to-face. Another reason why cultural differences can be an important issue in virtual teams is that the absence of face-toface interaction in virtual teams may make it more difficult for team members to resolve conflict or misunderstanding. Researchers have found that conflict resolution in distributed teams generally takes longer time than conflict resolution in face-to-face teams. Lack

of nonverbal cues may cause virtual team members to experience more misunderstandings than face-to-face team members. Indeed, cultural differences have caused a dispute between two members of a global virtual team in a high-tech company. A 43year-old Korean engineer in the team has been working with a U.S. computer programmer who is 15 years younger than he. At first, their collaboration went smoothly, but the Korean engineer began to feel that the U.S. programmer had been rude to him. He was often offended by the U.S. programmer’s e-mails, which directly expressed how she felt about collaboration with him – whether it was positive or negative. In particular, he found it unbearable that she pointed out problems or flaws in his work style and suggested how they could be fixed. This was incompatible with his cultural values, since Koreans are expected to respect elders and not to confront them directly. Although he feels that he needs to resolve this conflict, his inclination to save face prevents him from open discussion with the U.S. programmer. He is currently requesting a relocation to another team. The other virtuality dimension is organizational dispersion, which refers to the degree to which a virtual team consists of individuals who work across organizational boundaries. This multi-organizational nature of virtual teams may cause identity issues. Compared to traditional teams, virtual teams have a more permeable boundary. Processes of virtual teams transcend the boundary of a single organization, and virtual teams incessantly band and disband according to a specific purpose, which often causes membership and relationship within a virtual team to be temporary and tenuous. Thus, virtual team members may experience conflict associated with identity issues that result from belonging to a team of people from different organizations. In addition, the temporary and multi-organizational nature of virtual teams may hinder the development of group cohesiveness. Group cohesiveness refers to members’ attraction to the group and its task. Virtual teams have reported

lower levels of cohesiveness than face-to-face teams. It is likely that lack of physical interactions and informal relationships decrease the cohesiveness of virtual teams. Hence, weak identity and low group cohesiveness can lead to conflict in virtual teams. A consultant who used to work for a human resource development team in a large New York consulting firm was assigned to a virtual team that consisted of employees from two investment banks that would merge soon. The consultant’s duty was to design a human resource development program for the merged bank. To perform this task, he needed to collaborate with employees of the two banks. As the collaboration went on, the consultant felt isolated, since the cultures of the two banks quite differed from that of the consulting firm. Because the consultant needed to spend most of his work hours interacting with bank employees, he felt disconnected from his previous team, which caused him to feel that he did not belong to any team. As a consequence, he is having a difficult relationship with others in the team and hoping that the project will be over as soon as possible. The spatial, temporal, cultural, and organizational dispersion of virtual teams may altogether elicit trust issues, which are another possible source of conflict. The absence of traditional mechanisms of control (direct supervision) may prevent virtual team members from trusting one another. Since team members rarely see one another, lack of trust can be a critical source of conflict in virtual teams. If team members cannot trust one another, they are likely to be reluctant to share information and ideas and to collaborate, which, in turn, will lead to conflict among them. Furthermore, because virtual teams consist of individuals who possess diverse backgrounds and have rarely met or worked with one another before, they often do not possess knowledge of others’ competencies and past performance. Thus, disbelief in others’ competencies or performance may cause conflict in virtual teams. For instance, a global virtual team in a high-tech company recently encountered

conflict between its leader and members. A few months ago, the company restructured some of its teams to virtual ones and appointed a manager as leader of one of the virtual teams. The leader used to manage his subordinates successfully in traditional office settings. However, once he took charge of a virtual team – whose members he could not see anymore – he started to have difficulty managing the members. The only way he could monitor the members’ performance was to check the quantity and quality of their outputs and he could not keep track of their work processes. As a result, he became doubtful of the members’ time management ability and asked them to report their daily progress. The members strongly resisted his request, since they felt he infringed upon their freedom and flexibility that they valued highly. The conflict between the two parties has escalated for the past few months, and the human resources department in the company is mediating the dispute. It should be noted that the aforementioned sources of conflict are not the only causes of conflict in virtual teams. All sources of conflict in face-to-face teams can also cause conflict in virtual teams. Likewise, sources of conflict identified in this paper can also be sources of conflict in face-to-face teams. However, they are more salient and more critical in virtual teams than in face-to-face teams. Among the sources of conflict identified above, examples of conflicts caused by cultural differences and lack of trust are provided to illustrate how conflicts in virtual teams operate and can be resolved using virtual conflict resolution systems.

tion as conflict resolution methods in virtual teams. While a growing number of e-commerce companies (e.g., AOL Time Warner, Hewlett-Packard Co., DaimlerChrysler, Dell Computer Corp., Microsoft Corp., and Visa International) have utilized on-line dispute resolution to deal with conflict with their customers, there have been very few attempts to adopt conflict resolution systems specifically designed for virtual teams. This paper intends to develop virtual conflict resolution systems that will help virtual team members resolve interpersonal conflicts. More specifically, virtual negotiation and mediation systems are introduced based on Raider and Coleman’s negotiation and mediation strategies (see Fig. 1). Although a variety of electronic technologies such as e-mail, intranet, and on-line chat can be employed as means of conflict resolution in virtual settings, on-line chat is ideal for virtual workers in that it allows multiple parties (including the mediator) to communicate synchronously. Thus, virtual negotiation and mediation systems in this paper are based on online chat as means of communication.

The Virtual Negotiation System (VNS)
Negotiation is a process whereby parties in conflict attempt to reach agreement about issues on which they presently or potentially might disagree. VNS is defined as an on-line negotiation system based on Raider and Coleman’s collaborative negotiation strategies, using on-line chat software. Collaborative negotiation is a win–win process through which parties resolve their issues constructively by focusing on satisfying the needs of both sides. On the other hand, competitive negotiation is a win–lose process whereby parties with competing interests focus on dividing a limited resource. As in face-to-face teams, collaborative conflict management in virtual teams has a positive impact on satisfaction, perceived decision quality, and participation. Therefore, the VNS in this paper focuses on collaborative negotiation.

Workplace conflicts can be resolved using methods such as negotiation, mediation, facilitation, arbitration, and litigation. Among these various methods, negotiation and mediation are the most common. Thus, this paper focuses on negotiation and media-







Virtual teams can use Internet Relay Chat (IRC) as software for the VNS. IRC is popular software for text-based, on-line conversation for dispersed users who are logged in to the same server. Virtual team members can participate in real-time negotiation by simply logging in to the IRC server. Virtual teams can also develop and utilize their own on-line chat software. The VNS would be an effective negotiation tool for virtual team members who are geographically dispersed and heavily rely on electronic communication. Using the VNS, virtual team members can save the time and money necessary for traveling to meet and negotiate with the other party. Furthermore, they can negotiate with one another whenever and wherever they want, as long as the parties agree to negotiate. Another advantage of the VNS is that virtual mediation can be less emotional than face-to-face mediation since virtual disputers engage in text-based negotiation. Because their per336 ORGANIZATIONAL DYNAMICS

spectives and feelings are expressed in written words, their emotions can easily tone down and they become more honest with each other, which will, in turn, help them de-escalate the conflict. Michiko is a graphic designer in Japan who works for a global virtual team whose goal is to design a new mobile phone within six months. She reports her outputs to her manager, Tim, who is located in New York. Michiko’s teammates often ask for her help since she possesses excellent graphic design skills. Because Michiko values harmony with other members and places a heavy emphasis on the group goal, she has put more effort in teaching her teammates graphic design skills than in achieving her own performance goal. She thinks that assisting others will help the team achieve its goal quickly. However, Tim has been concerned with Michiko’s performance, because she has not been producing as much output as he expected. He thinks that the team will perform best when each

member concentrates on his or her own work and produces as much output as possible. Such value differences between Michiko and Tim have caused conflict between the two. Michiko has started to feel pressure from Tim and avoid communication with him. Tim has also started to have difficulty dealing with Michiko and thinks that she never listens to him. The conflict between the two has become worse since there has been no opportunity for them to meet face-to-face and share their perspectives. The only way of communication between the two has been phone calls and e-mails, but the frequency of their communication has dramatically dropped. Michiko and Tim can resolve the conflict by using the VNS. The process of the VNS follows Raider and Coleman’s four negotiation stages. A negotiation starts when at least one of the parties wants to change the status quo and requests a negotiation. Similar to face-to-face negotiation, the VNS cannot operate without voluntary participation of the parties. Tim has started to feel the necessity of resolving conflict with Michiko and asked for a negotiation. His request has been filed in the VNS and the VNS sends an e-mail to Michiko notifying her that Tim has requested an on-line negotiation with her and invites her to the negotiation. She accepts the invitation and decides on the date and time for negotiation. Once Tim and Michiko start a negotiation on the scheduled date and time, the VNS proceeds to the first stage. The first stage of the VNS is ritual sharing. Ritual sharing involves a preliminary conversation in which negotiators engage to build rapport with each other. In this stage, the VNS asks the negotiators to have a conversation on their values and interests. Michiko and Tim collect information on the other party’s values and interests. They start to realize that they have different values and interests resulting from different cultural backgrounds. That is, Tim finds that Michiko thinks that putting the needs and goals of the team ahead of her own is the best way to achieve the group goal. On the other hand, Michiko learns that Tim believes that doing one’s own work is the best way to contribute

to group performance. In the ritual sharing stage, both parties also build rapport and agree on the common ground and the norms presented by the VNS (e.g., confidentiality, voluntary nature of negotiation, and respect for the other party). Once both parties have enough ritual sharing and agree on the ground rules, they proceed to the next stage of the VNS. Although the VNS allows the parties freedom with regard to whether they move to the next stage or not and when to proceed, they are required to hand in certain negotiation output (e.g., knowledge of the other party’s values and interests) in order to move on to the next negotiation stage. The second step is defining the issues. In this stage, each party is required to reveal his or her position or demand. A position refers to one way that a party’s needs can be met, and is usually stated as demand or preference. Tim’s position is that he wants Michiko to concentrate more on her own tasks and produce more output. He also expects her to be more respectful to him. Michiko’s position is that Tim needs to understand what she is doing and put less pressure on her performance. Once the parties become clear about the issues they are negotiating, they are asked to inform the other party as to their own needs or interests underlying their positions. Needs or interests refer to either the tangible or psychological cause for which the parties are negotiating and that should be satisfied to have a stable negotiation outcome. One of Tim’s needs or interests is achieving the group goal by maximizing the individual members’ output. Another interest of Tim’s is desire for respect. Michiko’s needs or interests are achievement of the group goal by helping other members’ tasks as much as possible and desire for understanding. Neither Michiko nor Tim had ever been aware of the other party’s interests, but have learned to understand them better by sharing each other’s interests using the VNS. Reframing and prioritizing issues is the next step. Reframing is an attempt to restate the problem so that both sides’ priorities are considered. Tim and Michiko are requested by the VNS to reframe their issues in a way

that both parties’ interests are met. Their reframing question is ‘‘How can we achieve the group goal by maximizing one’s own performance and at the same time helping other members’ tasks?’’ Then they are asked to identify and prioritize issues. Both of them reach a conclusion that achieving the group goal in a timely manner is the most important issue. They also agree that maximizing the individual’s output or helping other members’ work is a minor issue and only a way to achieve the group goal. Desire for respect and understanding is identified as the next important issue. Once they reach a consensus on the priority of issues, they proceed to the final stage of the VNS. In the stage of problem-solving and reaching agreement, the parties are asked by the VNS to brainstorm solutions to a negotiation problem and reach an agreement on the best solutions. Michiko and Tim generate a variety of ideas. They identify common ideas that are most feasible and practical to implement. Examples of the ideas are: (1) Michiko will spend more time in her own tasks. Tim will help other members with their work. He will provide them with online graphic design training or offer them a training software package so that they can learn by themselves. (2) Both Michiko and Tim will pay more attention to each other. They will respect and understand each other more by exchanging more e-mails and phone calls. When either one has complaints or suggestions, he or she will inform the other party quickly and try his or her best to resolve the issues. Michiko and Tim reach an agreement on these two solutions and decide to implement them. Once they submit the solutions to the VNS, the negotiation ends, and the VNS sends both of them an e-mail that summarizes and confirms the agreement.

The Virtual Mediation System (VMS)
Although negotiation is a practical and useful tool for conflict resolution, there are situations where the parties cannot reach an

agreement by themselves. Mediation can be helpful in this case. Mediation is a form of third-party intervention into disputes, directed at assisting disputants to find a mutually acceptable settlement. Unlike negotiation, mediation involves the intervention of an impartial and neutral third party who has no decision-making power. Mediation is used when parties are too emotional or psychologically exhausted or have difficulty communicating with the other side. Similar to the VNS, on-line chat can be used as a technology for mediation in virtual teams. VMS is defined as an on-line chat mediation system that is based on Raider and Coleman’s mediation strategies and uses on-line chat software. On-line chat systems (e.g., IRC) are useful for virtual mediation in that they allow more than two parties to have a text-based conversation simultaneously. The VMS is useful to virtual team members who are located in different places in that they can easily participate in mediation just by logging in to the VMS server. The VMS can be more effective than face-to-face mediation since text-based conversations used in the VMS can help disputers de-escalate their negative emotions and feelings and be honest to each other. Thus, in this paper, the VMS is introduced as a mediation method for virtual team members. Rob is a computer programmer in San Diego who works for a virtual team that designs and creates computer programs for accounting companies. Rob and his teammates work on different parts of the project. Once Rob finishes the programming of his part, he e-mails it to Kelly in Boston who integrates Rob’s with her own work and e-mails it again to the project manager who is in charge of the team. Rob is a good programmer, but often makes little mistakes in his programs. It is always Kelly who recognizes and corrects his mistakes. Kelly has kept warning him of his mistakes, but Rob continuously makes similar errors. Kelly has become tired of warning him, and has started to change his work without notifying him. Rob has recently found from an e-mail with the project manager that Kelly changed

his own work without his permission. He gets offended by it and asks the manager to change his partner to another person. He insists that he cannot trust Kelly and does not want to work with her anymore. On the other hand, Kelly blames Rob for his carelessness and incompetence, which, according to her, are the reasons why she cannot trust him. Both of them avoid communicating, and the manager suggests they resolve the conflict through mediation. Although both parties, at first, do not follow the manager’s recommendation, they finally agree to participate in mediation. Similar to the VNS, the VMS begins when at least one party requests a mediation and both parties agree to participate. The major difference between the VNS and the VMS is that in the VMS, a virtual mediator who is also geographically dispersed from the parties leads the mediation process. The mediator’s role is to build rapport with the parties, educate the parties on the mediation process, facilitate communication between the parties, and help them discover and resolve the real issues. As with the VNS, the VMS is based on voluntary participation. Either party can request a mediation. If the request has been filed in the VMS, the parties receive an e-mail invitation from the mediator setting up the date and time for mediation. Although an internal third party can serve as a mediator, it is recommended that the VMS employ a pool of external mediators for confidentiality and fairness. Virtual mediators are required to have knowledge, skills, and experience in mediation and be adept at using on-line chat. The VMS consists of four stages: (1) setting up the mediation; (2) defining the needs and issues; (3) facilitating perspective-taking; and (4) problem-solving and reaching agreement. In the first stage, the mediator creates the appropriate climate for the mediation. More specifically, the mediator builds rapport with the parties by delivering them a message that he or she is an experienced mediator and will facilitate them to resolve the issues. In addition, the mediator makes the parties trust the mediation process by ensuring them neutral-

ity and confidentiality. In this stage, the mediator also delivers an opening statement that includes the ground rules or norms of the mediation and helps the parties with ritual sharing. In the next stage, the mediator facilitates the parties to identify the issues and understand the perspectives of the other side. The mediator provides each party, one at a time, with an opportunity to express his or her perspective. Based on a random order, Rob talks (enters a message) first. He says how furious he is after hearing that Kelly has changed his own work without notifying him. He insists that Kelly has ignored him and has never trusted his competency. The mediator allows him to fully explain his perspective and probes and paraphrases his underlying needs. The mediator helps him realize that he wants Kelly to respect and trust him more. While the mediator is having a conversation with Rob, Kelly is forbidden to interrupt. She is expected to hear their conversation and wait until Rob finishes talking. Then, Kelly is given an opportunity to express her perspective. She says she cannot bear Rob’s irresponsibility and carelessness. She thinks that since Rob has ignored her warnings about his mistakes several times, she has the right to change his work without his permission. The mediator probes her needs and paraphrases that she also wants respect and trust from Rob. Thus, the mediator highlights desire for trust and respect as common ground. The third stage of the VMS is facilitation of perspective-taking. In this stage, the parties directly communicate with each other. The mediator rarely intervenes except when he or she needs to summarize what the parties are saying and coach them to reframe the problem. Through this process, Rob finds that the reason why Kelly changed his work without his permission was that she thought he did not trust and respect her. Likewise, Kelly recognizes that Rob felt frustrated by her emails criticizing his mistakes and by the unexpected changes she made in his work. In this way, Rob and Kelly start understanding the other side’s perspective and needs.

They agree that the major issue is lack of trust and respect and generate a reframing question, ‘‘How can we trust and respect each other more?’’ Once the parties send the reframing question to the mediator, they proceed to the next stage of the VMS. Similar to the VNS, problem-solving and reaching agreement is the final stage of the VMS. In this stage, the mediator suggests that the parties brainstorm alternative solutions to the problem and has them confirm their understanding of their future commitments to each other by writing the agreement. Rob and Kelly generate the following solutions: (1) Rob will trust and respect Kelly’s ideas and opinions more. To become more trustworthy and respectable, he will pay much more attention to his mistakes and try to reduce them. He will also trust that Kelly will not change his work without his permission. (2) Kelly will also trust and respect Rob’s competency more. She will trust Rob’s promise that he will do his best not to make mistakes. She will get his permission when she needs to correct or change his work. After reaching an agreement on the solutions to the problem, Rob and Kelly are asked by the mediator to write the agreement. The mediator helps them create the written agreement and make any suggestions necessary for it to be feasible and practical. Once the parties approve the agreement and confirm their future commitments to it, the mediation ends and the mediator emails the written agreement to the parties.

In this paper, the VNS and VMS are introduced as conflict resolution methods in virtual teams. Although these virtual conflict resolution systems are proposed to be appropriate for virtual team members who are in conflict and willing to resolve the conflict, they may not be equally effective for all virtual workers. It should be noted that peo340 ORGANIZATIONAL DYNAMICS

ple possess different levels or kinds of conflict resolution skills – some have better conflict resolution skills than others. For this reason, virtual teams should train their members in conflict resolution skills so that they can deal with workplace conflicts effectively. However, before training their members in such skills, virtual teams should assess their members’ conflict resolution styles. People generally have five different conflict management styles: collaborating, compromising, accommodating, controlling, and avoiding. The collaborating style means managing conflict in a way that maintains interpersonal relationships and achieves both parties’ goals. The compromising style is concerned with finding an expedient and mutually acceptable solution that partially meets both parties’ needs. The accommodating style focuses on maintaining interpersonal relationships at all cost without taking the parties’ personal goals or interests into account. The controlling style involves taking the necessary steps to achieve one’s own personal goals without taking the relationship into account. The avoiding style takes an approach that avoiding conflict is the best way to deal with it. These five conflict management styles can be assessed by Thomas and Kilmann’s Conflict Mode Instrument which consists of statements about the way individuals may choose to behave in conflict situations. This questionnaire can be used as a conflict assessment tool that provides insight into what strategies individuals use to handle their interpersonal conflicts. While Thomas and Kilmann’s questionnaire was designed for individuals in nonvirtual settings, it can also be used for virtual team members. For instance, the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution (ICCCR) at Teachers College, Columbia University uses an on-line conflict questionnaire as a conflict assessment tool. The ICCCR has created a web-based survey that measures individuals’ conflict behaviors for its conflict resolution courses. Students and their significant others (e.g., friends, family, supervisors, or employees) are asked to fill out the on-line

survey on the students’ conflict behaviors. As a result, the students receive feedback on their conflict behaviors that are either assessed by themselves or compared with significant others’ assessments. Virtual teams can assess their members’ conflict resolution styles or behaviors using such on-line tools. Before implementing a conflict resolution training program, virtual teams can have the participants and their significant others fill out an on-line survey and provide the participants with multi-rater feedback. In this way, participants can learn their own conflict resolution styles and how significant others’ assessments differ from their own perceptions. Such multi-rater feedback can be an important training tool for virtual team members. Since they lack physical interactions with their teammates, they tend to have fewer opportunities to receive feedback on their conflict behaviors and conflict resolution styles than face-to-face team members. Therefore, providing virtual team members with accurate feedback can help them diagnose their own conflict resolution styles and improve their conflict resolution skills. It has been suggested that interpersonal core competencies necessary for effective conflict resolution are communication, listening, empathy, being team-oriented, and discretion. Empathy, being team-oriented, and discretion are important to virtual team members as well as face-to-face team members, since they are attitudes that are pivotal in conflict situations in general. However, given that virtual communication is dramatically different from face-to-face communication, it is likely that communication and listening skills required for virtual team members differ from those of face-to-face team members. As mentioned earlier, communication in virtual teams is heavily dependent on electronic communication such as e-mail, intranet, and video-conferencing. Thus, a set of virtual communication skills are required as a conflict resolution core competency in virtual settings: communicating with other teammates immediately; notifying receipt of messages; responding within one business day; using

e-mail figures to express emotions; and obtaining a local translator to overcome language barriers. In addition, listening skills that virtual team members need to possess pertain to reading teammates’ messages immediately and rephrasing them actively and empathetically. These virtual communication and listening skills will not only help virtual team members reduce conflicts resulting from miscommunication but also resolve conflicts by engaging in effective communication and listening behaviors. Virtual team members can learn conflict resolution skills by participating in distance or e-learning. Distance learning refers to training for geographically dispersed participants through electronic technologies such as satellite, video, audio, audio-graphic computer, and multimedia technology. E-learning also employs new training technologies such as web-based training and CD-ROM and can be used in a self-paced manner. A growing number of companies (e.g., Pfizer Inc., DaimlerChrysler, General Motors Corp., Boeing Co., MCI WorldCom, and Dunkin Donuts) are using distance or E-learning to train their employees in specific knowledge or skills. Distance or e-learning is appropriate for training virtual team members in conflict resolution skills in that it is not limited to a specific time or location. Virtual team members can acquire specific conflict resolution skills as well as communication and listening skills by participating in distance or e-learning. In addition, distance or e-learning allows virtual negotiation and mediation training using computer simulation or on-line chat. By participating in these virtual negotiation and mediation programs, virtual team members can practice and improve their negotiation and mediation skills. Furthermore, mediating real conflict cases can help virtual team members learn conflict resolution skills. Participating in the VMS as a mediator is meaningful in that it not only aids others in conflict resolution but also helps develop one’s own conflict resolution skills. On-line diversity training can be useful to virtual team members who work with people from different countries or

cultures. Having knowledge of work and communication behaviors in different cultures will help virtual team members become more sensitive to and better understand cultural differences, which will contribute to the resolution of conflict resulting from cultural differences.

As stated earlier, the virtual work environment possesses characteristics distinguishable from those of traditional office settings. Virtual team members engage in work and communication modes different from those of face-to-face team members. In light of this, it is speculated that sources and resolution of conflict in virtual teams differ from those of faceto-face teams. Thus, this paper aims at identifying the sources of conflict in virtual teams, developing conflict resolution systems, and suggesting ways of training conflict resolution skills for such teams. Given that there is a paucity of theories or research on conflict resolution in virtual contexts, this paper is one of the first attempts to delineate the nature of conflict in virtual teams and demonstrate how it can be resolved applying Raider and Coleman’s negotiation and mediation strategies. As mentioned earlier, conflict in virtual teams can be caused by ambiguity with respect to task, role, and responsibility as well as cultural differences, weak identity, low group cohesiveness, and lack of trust. Virtual teams can prevent conflict resulting from such sources by creating a more trustworthy culture, reassigning or clarifying tasks, roles, and responsibilities, and conducting diversity training or teambuilding programs. Training team members in conflict resolution skills is another way to prevent conflict in virtual teams. Yet, if conflict occurs in virtual teams, the use of the VNS and VMS is recommended. Because the VNS is a practical and convenient tool for conflict resolution, it is suggested that virtual team members try it first when they face conflict and want to resolve it. However, if the parties are too emotional or

psychologically exhausted, encounter communication barriers, or fear direct confrontation, mediation is recommended. Although most interpersonal conflicts can be resolved through negotiation or mediation, there are some situations where parties should take stronger action to solve their issues. Arbitration or litigation can be used in this case. Arbitration refers to a conflict resolution procedure whereby a third party neutral hears arguments from the parties and makes a decision about how the issue can be settled. Litigation involves intervention of a judge who possesses power to settle the dispute. Given that these two methods involve intervention of formal or legal authority and should be used as a last-minute remedy, the VNS and VMS are still recommended for parties who are willing and able to resolve their issues voluntarily. The VNS and VMS can be widely used as conflict resolution mechanisms in virtual settings ranging from virtual teams in the corporate world to virtual universities or virtual counseling. The VNS and VMS are convenient to use and easily accessible as long as technology supports them. They save time and money required for virtual team members to travel to negotiate with the other party. Moreover, companies can save costs necessary for developing their own conflict resolution systems by using inexpensive, simple software such as IRC. The VNS and VMS can also contribute to de-escalation of emotions. When parties communicate with one another in written messages, their facial expressions and tone of voice are hidden, which helps them deescalate their emotions and pay more attention to the content of the communication. In addition, the VNS and VMS can be effective when parties have different demographic backgrounds. In face-to-face teams, age, gender, or race difference between the parties may prevent them from finding commonalities, which may aggravate the conflict. In contrast, parties in virtual settings pay less attention to the demographic differences between them since such differences are less salient and noticeable. Therefore, the VNS

and VMS can serve as an effective conflict resolution tool for disputants with different demographic characteristics. Unlike face-to-face negotiation and mediation, the VNS and VMS, using language translation software, can enable disputers who use different languages to negotiate with each other. Language translation software allows instant translation from one language to another. Each party’s messages are automatically translated into the language of the other side, which makes it possible for disputers from different cultures or countries to negotiate without language barriers. Despite these virtues, the VNS and VMS have some drawbacks. First, researchers generally indicate that virtual conflict resolution usually takes longer than face-to-face conflict resolution. While virtual team members may engage in verbal communication as efficient as that of face-to-face team members, their nonverbal communication is limited, which may lead to increased misunderstanding. Yet, research has demonstrated that in the long term, there is no difference in the time required for conflict resolution between virtual and face-to-face teams. Hence, the VNS and VMS would be more beneficial to virtual teams that exist for a longer period of time than to temporary virtual teams. While a growing body of literature has demonstrated that electronic communication can help develop intimacy and interpersonal trust, electronic communication may not be as effective as face-to-face communication in building and maintaining interpersonal relationships. Without physical interactions and nonverbal communication with other members, it is difficult for virtual team members to develop rapport and trust with the other party before they start negotiation or mediation. Therefore, virtual teams should design the VNS and VMS in a way that facilitates disputers to build rapport with each other by creating more engaging ritual-sharing programs. Finally, the VNS and VMS may not be appropriate for disputers who are not proficient in on-line chat. Although it is assumed that virtual team members are generally

computer-literate, there can be individual differences in the ability to use on-line chat. For instance, disputers who type fast can communicate more in a given time than those whose tying speed is slow. Therefore, the VNS and VMS should make sure that parties have equivalent computer literacy before negotiation or mediation starts. As mentioned earlier, the assessment and training of conflict resolution skills using electronic technology can help virtual team members learn the process of virtual negotiation and mediation and acquire skills necessary for effective conflict resolution. Virtual teams can develop their own conflict assessment tools and conflict skills training programs using a variety of technologies such as internet, intranet, on-line chat, multimedia, and CD-ROM. It should be noted that these assessment tools and training programs can also be useful to nonvirtual organizations and teams in that more and more organizations are adopting technology-based training programs due to cost savings and accessibility.

This paper intends to reveal the nature of conflict in virtual teams and develop conflict resolution systems for such teams. With these goals in mind, sources of conflict in virtual teams have been identified and some examples of such sources have been provided. The VNS and VMS have been introduced and delineated as conflict resolution systems for virtual teams. Continuing technological advances and globalization will give birth to more and more virtual teams, and a growing number of organizations will adopt virtual team systems. Developing and adopting conflict resolution systems suitable for virtual teams and training team members in conflict resolutions skills will not only help individual members resolve their own conflicts, but also contribute to the effectiveness of virtual teams.


Sources that discuss the definition and characteristics of virtual teams are G. DeSanctis, N. Staudenmayer, and S. S. Wong, ‘‘Interdependence in Virtual Organizations,’’ in C. L. Cooper and D. M. Rousseau (Eds.) Trends in Organizational Behavior, vol. 6 (New York: Wiley, 1999, 81–103); J. Lipnack and J. Stamps, Virtual Teams: Reaching across Space, Time, and Organizations with Technology (John Wiley, 1997); A. M. Townsend, S. M. DeMarie, and A. R. Hendrickson, ‘‘Virtual Teams: Technology and the Workplace of the Future,’’ Academy of Management Executive, 1998, 12, 17–29; I. Zigurs, ‘‘Leadership in Virtual Teams: Oxymoron or Opportunity?’’ Organizational Dynamics, 2002, 31(4), 339– 351. There are several excellent references on the difference in group and communication behavior between virtual and face-to-face teams. For instance, see L. Chidambaram, ‘‘Relational Development in Computer-Supported Groups,’’ MIS Quarterly, 1996, 20, 143– 165; L. Lebie, J. A. Rhoades, and J. E. McGrath, ‘‘Interaction Process in Computer-Mediated and Face-To-Face Groups,’’ Computer Supported Cooperative Work, 1996, 4, 127–152; M. Mortensen and P. J. Hinds, ‘‘Conflict and Shared Identity in Geographically Distributed Teams,’’ International Journal of Conflict Management, 2001, 12, 212–238; J. Siegel, V. Dubrovsky, S. Kiesler, and T. McGuire, ‘‘Group Processes in Computer-Mediated Communication,’’ Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 1986, 37, 157– 187; L. Sproull and S. Kiesler, ‘‘Reducing Social Context Cues: Electronic Mail in Organizational Communication,’’ Management Science, 1986, 32, 1492–1512; M. E. Warkentin, L. Sayeed, and R. Hightower, ‘‘Virtual Teams versus Face-To-Face Teams: An Exploratory Study of Web-Based Conference System,’’ 1997, 28, 975–996. For more on individualism and collectivism, see G. Hofstede, Culture’s Consequences (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, 1980). For information about the definition of conflict and negotiation and conflict resolution skills, see M. F. Masters and R. R. Albright, The Complete Guide to Conflict Resolution in the Workplace (New York: AMACOM, 2002). For a definition of mediation and issues related to mediation, see M. Anstey, Managing Change: Negotiating Conflict, 2nd ed. (Cape Town: Juta & Co. Ltd., 1999). On the principles and process of virtual negotiation and mediation, see E. Raider and S. W. Coleman, Collaborative Negotiation (New York: Coleman Raider International, 1992). For information about conflict management styles, see J. M. Hiltrop and S. Udall, The Essence of Negotiation (London: Prentice Hall, 1995); K. Thomas and R. Kilmann, Conflict Mode Instrument (Tuxedo, NY: XICOM Inc., 1994). On distance or e-learning, see J. R. D. Burgess and J. E. A. Russell, ‘‘The Effectiveness of Distance Learning Initiatives in Organizations,’’ Journal of Vocational Behavior, 2003, 63, 289–303; B. Leonard, ‘‘Distance Learning: Work and Training Overlap,’’ HR Magazine, 1996, 41, 41–47. For information about Internet Relay Chat (IRC), see rfc1459.html.

Yuhyung Shin is a Ph.D. candidate in the social/organizational psychology program at Columbia University. She received her M.A. in organizational psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University.

Her research interests include person–environment fit, value congruence, organizational culture, team effectiveness, and human resource issues in virtual organizations. She has recently published an article, ‘‘A person– environment fit model for virtual organizations,’’ in Journal of Management (2004) and a co-authored article, ‘‘Multiple perspectives of congruence: Relationships between value congruence and employee attitudes,’’ in Journal of Organizational Behavior (2005). She is also a coauthor of a book chapter, ‘‘Skill acquisition and person–environment fit,’’ which appeared in the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology’s Organizational Frontiers Series, Work Careers: A Developmental Perspective (2002) (Tel.: +1 212 678 8152; fax: +1 212 678 8303; e-mail: