How Face-to-Face Meetings Can Heal Team Conflicts
Once conflict emerges between groups, group members tend to see those who are located somewhere else as being at fault. This fault-finding can be especially acute when the parties have never met.
An example I once came across is a customer department in which personnel had to do several extra steps to extract needed information from a weekly report. The matter easily could have been resolved with a quick programming fix. When I asked department members why they didn’t contact IT for assistance, they unleashed a stream of invectives to describe the IT personnel: They were undependable, inconsiderate, disagreeable, incompetent, and more. Granted, these customers had some legitimate grievances with IT, but their discontent with IT went beyond these matters. In their view, the IT department was incapable of doing anything right.
When I inquired further, I discovered that communication with IT personnel had been almost entirely by phone, text, and email. Most of the customers had never met anyone in IT. Because the IT department was located several states away, face-to-face meetings between most of the people in the two groups had never occurred.
I went to visit the IT department. Inconsiderate, disagreeable people? Nope! The IT department was staffed by caring, hardworking people who wanted to do right by their customers. They admitted that their service quality had plummeted following a wallop of a reorganization and they were struggling to fix the problems. Yet, even when they implemented major improvements, they never heard a positive word from their customers or even a simple thank you. They sounded dispirited as they recited their own list of grievances about their customers: They were unappreciative, demanding, unyielding, and on and on.
Fortunately, the management of the two groups finally decided to see if periodic face-to-face meetings could make a difference. Despite the time and expense, the two groups began to visit each other’s sites, a few people each time, alternating who did the traveling. Over time, almost everyone had the opportunity to visit the other facility. The opportunity to engage in direct conversations led to reduced squabbling between the two groups, due to the eye-opening discovery that they had a lot in common.
When people who are located quite a distance from each other finally meet face to face, they usually discover that the other party isn’t the malicious monsters they might have imagined. And so it was in this case. These meetings helped the two groups repair their damaged relationships and hold honest conversations about matters that needed attention. When laughter replaces finger-pointing, as happened in this situation, productivity inevitably improves.
Even when groups are too far apart to justify actual face-to-face meetings, they can take advantage of technologies that enable at least virtual face-to-face meetings. When adversaries can become trusted colleagues, the benefits are well worth it.