Everyone knows that when you bring a group of people together to work on a project that there will be conflict. In the workplace how this conflict is resolved will have an impact on the success of any team. Small group theory shows that there are five main ways that teams deal with conflict: avoidance; accommodation; competition; collaboration; and compromise.
Competitive behaviour can be seen when one person tries to force their views on the other members of the team. It also happens when one member of the team is more interested in their own goals than those of the teams and as a result starts to withhold information or become very negative about any solution that isn’t their own. Not surprisingly this has a negative impact on the team causing friction and division which stops the team from bonding and results in poorer team performance. What I’ve been fascinated to learn is that competition can actually be beneficial in virtual teams.
Why should this be any different in a virtual team?
There are a variety of different ways to show your competitive nature, for example the tone of your voice, your body language, and the actual words you use. In electronic communication these social cues are removed and it’s much harder to tell the emotional state of the writer. If I write an email stating “I don’t think that solution will work” it could be seen as a very reasonable response. If I’m talking to you in person and I say the same thing in a terse voice while looking at you as if you are a complete idiot, my response is going to have a negative impact on you. So while I may exhibit competitive behaviour all the time it may not be perceived by the other team members when only electronic means are used to convey it. If the team members don’t perceive the behaviour it doesn’t have a negative impact on them.
This shows why the negative impact of the behaviour is lessened but why does it actually become beneficial?
It happens because we mistake it for something else. We think that the person is participating more in the team instead of recognising them as someone who has their own agenda for the team. It doesn’t cause the same division or resentment.
Mind you, it’s just as well that this behavioural trait doesn’t have the same impact on virtual teams as it does on co-located teams: it’s much easier to show your competitive side when you have a computer to hide behind.