Managing marginalisation in virtual teams

by Francis on October 23, 2011

How­ever you con­fig­ure your vir­tual work teams you will always fin­ish up with groups with more and groups with less con­trol over the way the pro­ject is run, groups who get all of the mes­sages and groups who get only some, large groups who can oper­ate self suf­fi­ciently and small groups who can’t.  In amongst all of these com­bin­a­tions of groups you will have some who oper­ate at the centre of the oper­a­tion and those on the mar­gins.  These mar­gins can be geo­graphic, tem­poral or tech­nical, but whatever their form, they are always there and must be con­sciously man­aged and con­trolled to keep your pro­ject on track.

When per­son­nel start to feel mar­gin­al­ised they will begin to behave in ways that are either con­tra to the best interests of the pro­ject or at least not dir­ectly aligned with the pro­jects needs, usu­ally this is not a con­scious or mali­cious reac­tion, simply a sur­vival instinct kick­ing in to help the per­son­nel feel­ing mar­gin­al­ised to believe they have a pur­pose.  These per­son­nel may react in one of sev­eral ways, usu­ally pre­ceded by some form of plea to the pro­ject or line man­age­ment to be allowed to be more engaged.  They could try to do what they believe is the best for the pro­ject, this may be right or wrong when judged against the cent­ral view of the pro­ject goals but at least they would be try­ing, they could simply mark time, doing minor, less con­trib­ut­ory tasks they know to be in the interests of the pro­ject but not neces­sar­iliy the abso­lute best use of their skills and time, or they could act­ively res­ist the cent­ral views of the pro­ject, through either leav­ing the pro­ject to seek more engaged roles else­where or in the worst case act­ively sab­ot­aging the activ­it­ies of the pro­ject through res­ist­ing efforts from the project’s man­age­ment group to dir­ect their and oth­ers efforts.

While it is far bet­ter to work to avoid mar­gin­al­isa­tion in your pro­jects from the out­set through act­ively enga­ging with all of the teams and groups that form part of the endeav­our, even with the best of efforts from all con­cerned it is likely that any large pro­ject will have, at some time, some per­son­nel who feel dis­en­fran­chised or mar­gin­al­ised from the col­lect­ive effort.  When this mar­gin­al­isa­tion hap­pens or starts to become appar­ent it is, I believe, vitally import­ant that the thoughts and feel­ings of those feel­ing excluded are taken very ser­i­ously.  If they are being mar­gin­al­ised through the side effect of some other pro­ject strategy, change the strategy as much as pos­sible to rein­cor­por­ate the mar­gin­al­ised per­son­nel back into the pro­ject, this could be things such as chan­ging the tim­ing or format of a reg­u­lar meet­ing so that they are able to par­ti­cip­ate more fully or be more engaged with the dis­cus­sion, it could also be to change some of the assigned tasks so that the lar­ger groups on the pro­ject are forced to deal more inclus­ively with the mar­gin­al­ised party, whatever hap­pens though, some­thing must be done to include these dis­en­fran­chised per­son­nel back into the job before the rela­tion­ship fails com­pletely and they go from feel­ing last out but want­ing to par­ti­cip­ate to the point where they act­ively dis­en­gage from the pro­ject either men­tally or physically.

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