Wednesday, June 08, 2005

An advantage of working online: dealing with conflict

One of the mailing lists I'm on is going through a small flame war, and the process (and one person's side comment to me) has reminded me of one of the advantages that distributed groups can have by working online: relative ease in managing conflict!

If you've observed (or been in) an online argument or worse, you might be skeptical at this point; hear me out. In face-to-face work, when conflict erupts, we have certain approaches we're each accustomed to trying, from burying our heads in the sand (the ostrich approach) to any of a number of more pro-active ways. Sometimes they work; sometimes they don't. In any case, we face a couple of problems working face to face: it's usually hard to recall exactly what was said and what transpired as a result (we rarely have a tape recorder running), and we usually have to think "on our feet," with little time to reflect. Arguments can escalate rapidly, or they can get buried without being resolved, if people can't figure out how to deal with them.

Especially when working asynchronously online (e.g., using email mailing lists or places such as Web Crossing or Caucus), we have both of those at our fingertips:

  • The transcript of the conversation is preserved, and so it's relatively easy to review what was said.
  • If we choose to take advantage of it, we can wait after receiving a message to think about how we want to respond and to craft perhaps a more thoughtful message than we might have uttered on the spur of the moment.

One still needs skill, self-awareness, and a bit of courage to help resolve such situations, but these two advantages might make a difference to your distributed organization.


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