Understanding Conflict in Geographically Distributed Teams: The Moderating Effects of Shared Identity, Shared Context, and Spontaneous Communication

  • Hinds P
  • Mortensen M
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Abstract

Geographically distributed teams are increasingly prevalent in the workplace, and research on distributed teams is ever more available. Despite this increased attention, we still know surprisingly little about how the dynamics of distributed teams differ from those of their collocated counterparts and how existing models of teams apply to this new form of work. For example, although it has been argued that distributed as compared with collocated teams have more severe conflicts that fester longer and resist resolution, few comparative studies investigate dynamics such as conflict in both distributed and collocated teams. In this study, we examine conflict, its antecedents, and its effects on performance in distributed as compared with collocated teams. Our goal is to understand how conflict plays out in distributed and collocated teams, thus providing insight into how existing models of conflict must be augmented to reflect the trend toward distributed work. We report the results of a field study of 43 teams, 22 collocated and 21 distributed, from a large multinational company. As expected, the distributed teams reported more task and interpersonal conflict than did the collocated teams. We found evidence that shared identity moderated the effect of distribution on interpersonal conflict and that shared context moderated the effect of distribution on task conflict. Finally, we found that spontaneous communication played a pivotal role in the relationship between distribution and conflict. First, spontaneous communication was associated with a stronger shared identity and more shared context, our moderating variables. Second, spontaneous communication had a direct moderating effect on the distribution-conflict relationship, mitigating the effect of distribution on both types of conflict. We argue that this effect reflects the role of spontaneous communication in facilitating conflict identification and conflict handling

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Authors

  • Pamela J. Hinds

  • Mark Mortensen

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