Under the surface and far apart: Hidden discord in global virtual teams

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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With the development of advanced information communication technology, globally dispersed teams have become increasingly common, and research on such teams is likely to have increased importance following COVID-19. Despite the presence of numerous factors that make discord more likely in such teams, from language asymmetries and cultural differences to technological mediation and differing communication habits, no prior research has addressed misunderstandings, non-understandings, and hidden disagreements (which I label ‘hidden discord’) in global teams. This study used semi-structured interviews and documentary evidence including global team email interactions to investigate the question “How does hidden discord impact global virtual teams?” Using an abductive analytical approach, the research found that when remote, it is more difficult for team members to enter ‘clarification cycles’ where misunderstandings and hidden disagreements can be noticed, which leads to a variety of incidents that must be managed. This study identified and categorised incidents of hidden discord, presenting six sub-categories of hidden discord, including ‘undiscussed disagreements’ and ‘repressed conflicts’ which have not previously been identified in the GVT literature. The research found that the same types of discord can have widely varying outcomes depending on the pathways taken, with outcomes being affected by the team conditions, triggers and communications medium used when the discord was revealed. The detailed accounts of these incidents revealed that when the emotional impact of these incidents was not contained effectively, teams became less efficient and had less common ground, leading to splits in the teams, reducing trust, cohesion, and authority of existing leaders. The study also found several protective factors against hidden discord, including communication skill and previous collaborations, and possible interventions such as creating common vocabulary, toleration of difference, and frequent synchronous communication. Whilst this research shows the tendency for dispersed teams to avoid and repress when experiencing communication difficulties it also shows that an array of communication techniques and technologies can prevent, identify, and manage hidden discord, ensuring incidents are dealt with through compromise and sensemaking, and creating opportunities for global teams to improvise and resolve underlying difficulties.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Panteli, Niki, Supervisor
  • Symon, Gillian, Supervisor
Thesis sponsors
Award date1 Feb 2023
Publication statusPublished - 27 Jan 2023


  • global teams
  • misunderstanding
  • conflict
  • disagreement
  • critical incident
  • international business research
  • sensemaking
  • remote work
  • team formation
  • emotions at work
  • communication breakdown
  • sociolinguistics

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