Blogs for Culture Vultures

Preventing Conflict in Global Virtual Teams


Are you part of a virtual team?

Do you have colleagues all over the world?

Well, you’re not alone! More and more professionals are having to work in similar organisational structures.

Conflict in any team is normal.

However, when it takes place across countries and time zones, it can very damaging.

Nadine Graceson, international cross cultural training manager, put it well when she said:

“Team conflict can produce some of the most toxic behaviours amongst colleagues. Working in an atmosphere in which there is animosity between certain people can be so stressful that, not only does it damage productivity, but it can stop people wanting to come into work altogether’.

One advantage of face-to-face teams is that the team leaders typically become aware of issues fairly quickly.

Although virtual teams have in effect a ‘doubtful advantage’, in that toxic atmospheres are reduced somewhat, conflict is far more difficult for a virtual team leader to detect and manage.

As such, it’s better to try and minimise potential causes of conflict in the first place.

Clearly, conflict will always be a part of team behaviour, but by understanding and minimising the drivers, the challenge is made far easier.

Below, we explore one of the core conflict drivers in global virtual teams – communication.

Cultural Differences, Communication and Conflict

Without doubt, communication differences are the most common cause of conflict in global virtual teams.

These differences are primarily rooted in something known as ‘high context / low context communication styles’.

In most Western cultures, people tend to be direct in the way in which they speak. They are what we call Low Context communicators (LCC).

They believe the best way to communicate is to ‘say it as it is’. Everything is communicated in words and, what they say. Not how they say it or whether they say it.

Individuals in many Asian, Middle Eastern and African countries, however, tend to be high context communicators (HCC).

They tend to use a more multi-layered approach and to assume people will know what they mean, even if they don’t say it.

They make greater use of context and communication cues, such as body language, silence and facial expressions.

They may even communicate their feelings in what they don’t say.

The Dynamics of High and Low Context Communication Styles

The dynamics of these styles when they come together are heightened in virtual cross-cultural teams:

  • HCC communicators may smile or indicate agreement, whilst communicating disagreement through other means. Since LCC cannot decode these means, they assume their HCC colleagues are happy and press ahead.
  • HCC communicators may well feel that their LCC colleagues don’t take the time to communicate with them effectively and that they jump to decisions too quickly. They often report feeling ‘railroaded’ by their LCC colleagues.


These are two very small examples of the potential challenges caused by this different approach in communication.

Although these communication differences are part of a far richer cultural tapestry, these examples provide an insight into the type of challenges that global virtual teams might be confronted with.

Lack of Cultural Awareness

When global virtual team members don’t understand these communication differences, then they won’t understand how to manage them.

The potential for conflict and relationship damage is therefore huge!

If leaders of global virtual teams are to foster positive and productive teams, then it’s essential they equip their team with an awareness of critical topics such as communication differences.

By providing team members with the tools to navigate and bridge potential communication differences, they make it more likely that their teams will be a success.

Developing a culturally aware, global virtual team will naturally avert potential conflict as the team will be skilled in adapting the way they communicate and decoding the communication of their peers.

Cultural Competence eLearning for Teams

Online Cultural Competence Course


If you lead a virtual team and want to ensure your team members are engaged, productive and not hampered by the fall out potential conflict, then why not arrange for team members to take part in our Cultural Competence eLearning Course?

Jam packed with business relevant learning and case studies, this course will ensure your team are able to work effectively together and avert potential conflict.


Custom Cultural Competence Training Online

Webinars on Cultural Competence


Alternatively, if you would rather arrange live interactive training, then contact us to discuss our Cultural Awareness webinar training sessions.

Tailored to meet the specific business needs of the learners, our webinars will ensure your team develop the mindset needed to perform as a productive member of their global virtual team!



Blog image by Gabriel Benois on Unsplash

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