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Why Virtual Meetings Are Bad for Constructive Conflict

The limits of Zoom.

November 14, 2021
 
 

What percent of your meetings nowadays are on Zoom? (Or some other virtual meeting platform—apologies to all of you on Teams or WebEx or whatever.)

Almost all my meetings are still virtual. The people in the discussions are increasingly Zooming in from campus. But we are mostly still meeting online. You?

However, not all of the meetings I participate in are virtual. Each week, I’ll have two or three face-to-face campus meetings. Enough in-person meetings to start drawing comparisons across the physical/virtual modalities.

One conclusion on virtual versus face-to-face meetings that I’m coming to is around creative and constructive conflict.

This is the good conflict—the task conflict—that we have with colleagues. Where we are honestly arguing out an issue, strategy or decision. Where we disagree but are listening to one another—and trying to figure out the best way forward.

I’m finding that constructive workplace conflict on Zoom is either a: absent or b: exhausting.

You have to have lots of trust and history to argue with a colleague over Zoom.

Virtual meetings can be information impoverished interactions. The nonverbal cues and signals that constitute so much of communication and which we heavily rely on in managing conflict are mainly absent in virtual meetings.

In larger Zoom meetings, participants tend to use the chat-to-a-person function for backchannel connections. Get more than four people on a Zoom, and there will likely be many levels of conversation occurring.

Chatting or displaying an image of clapping hands or a thumbs-up is a poor substitute for body language. Demonstrating that we are actively listening to one another is challenging in the virtual meeting environment.

Conflict that occurs over digital platforms—both synchronous and asynchronous—is likely to be heightened. It may be that digital communications exacerbate bad conflict while inhibiting good conflict.

An in-person meeting with smart colleagues where we disagree and hash out the issues leaves me energized. The same discussion over Zoom makes me want to take a nap.

What has been your experience with virtual collaboration and constructive conflict?

It may be that for remote colleagues—a growing category in higher education—mastering the art of having good virtual conflict is a skill that can be learned. For some, Zoom meetings might be preferable for arguing out difficult issues.

The meetings that we participate in can either amplify or disrupt existing hierarchies and power dynamics.

A well-designed meeting, be it in person or virtual, is one that pays attention to the tendency of those attendees with the most status to dominate the conversation.

A good meeting creates space for the safe exchange of everyone’s ideas, not just those in the room who earn the most money.

So maybe those who are good at virtual meetings—and virtual meeting creative conflict—need to teach us what they have learned.

What does all this say about the synchronous components of online education?

Should we get on Zoom and discuss?

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