Leveraging Positive Conflict in the Workplace

I think it is safe to say that just mentioning the word “conflict” can be anxiety inducing. Conflict usually does not feel good even though, as mentioned in our introductory blog post about conflict, it is technically a neutral term. So why is conflict so universally feared? And how can we expand our understanding of conflict to take advantage of its potentially positive aspects?

First, we need to better understand the nuances of conflict. As a refresher, our previous blog posts discussed conflict at the organizational-level and in our personal lives. Now, let us take a look at team-level conflict in the workplace. Conflict in the workplace often happens within a teamwork context. Team members work together frequently (often in close quarters) to achieve collective goals and are dependent on each other’s work. It is easy to see where conflict can appear within a team context.

Jehn (1997) has identified three types of team conflict:

  • Relationship conflict is conflict due to interpersonal incompatibilities. Team members start mistrusting one another and become less concerned with collective goals. They view the conflict as a win-lose proposition and seek to protect their personal interests. If team members feel like the conflict is personally motivated, they start feeling attacked and act defensively often at the expense of the team’s success. This is when the team starts becoming very competitive, hostile, and close-minded. This kind of conflict is never positive and, in my opinion, the worst.
  • Process conflict is incompatibility of roles, responsibilities, schedule, and delegating tasks. Unsurprisingly, relationship and process conflict often appear together (O’Neill, McLarnon, Hoffart, Woodley, & Allen, 2018). Those with interpersonal conflict do not trust their team members’ work, which leads to process conflict. Those with process conflict contribute to relationship conflict. It is a vicious cycle.
  • Finally, there is task conflict. Task conflict is incompatibility of opinions and views on the task itself and solutions to the task. It is more of a variation in ideas and is less personal. Unlike interpersonal conflict, during task conflict, members continue to think collectively instead of focusing on individualistic concerns or interests. In comparison to relationship and process conflict, task conflict is the only type of conflict with potential positive outcomes. It can lead to performance improvement, broadened views, and the ability to accept constructive criticism to examine the possibility of alternative solutions to the task at hand. It also increases team members’ courage to resist group pressures to conform and the team becomes more creative in thought (Nemeth & Chiles, 1988; Van Dyne & Saaverda, 1996).

So, now that we know task conflict has the potential to create powerful positive change, how can we ensure task conflict appears in its most optimal and beneficial form? Task conflict is also quite nuanced. Yes, it is a potentially better form of conflict, but it is not always positive and requires certain conditions to result in positive outcomes. Task conflict is positive as long as relationship and process conflict are controlled and as long as it is at a moderate level (De Drue, 2006). If you have high levels of relationship or process conflict, they will steamroll task conflict because the other two require high cognitive effort. Relationship and process conflict must be minimized so that team members’ cognitive efforts are focused on task issues (sharing and using information to identify the best solution). Task conflict also needs to be at a moderate level. Low task conflict intensity leads to inactivity, avoidance, neglect of information, and low joint performance. High conflict intensity reduces the capacity to perceive, process, and evaluate information. However, with moderate conflict intensity, team members seek and integrate information, consider more alternatives, and feel a collective desire to improve the situation.

Now, it feels like managing positive task conflict is more trouble than it is worth. Why should organizations care? Task level conflict is very important for organizations and teams that rely on creativity and innovation for task solutions (De Drue, 2006). It is also a great way to eliminate groupthink (when team members make bad decisions because they want to conform or fear dissent). Here at FMP, we take pride in our ability to creative and tailored solutions for our clients. This means we take care to minimize relationship and process conflict in our teams and encourage a good level of task conflict. Team members are encouraged to question why things are done and bring up ideas that could improve our solutions.

How can organizations manage positive task conflict? Organizations with a climate or culture that encourages within-group trust, loyalty, psychological safety, and cooperative goal interdependence are often able to minimize the relationship and process conflict and encourage moderate task conflict (De Drue, 2006). Organizations should also promote cooperative instead of competitive values (Maltarich, Kukenberger, Reilly, & Mathieu, 2018). When organizations are overly competitive, team members act individualistic and experience process and relationship conflict. Managers should also monitor their team early on to identify potential drivers of relationship and process conflict and address them before they grow (Maltarich, et al., 2018). Team interventions and team building early on can help with encouraging this preventative cooperative conflict management. Setting collective goals, working out team differences, problem solving, and role clarification early on help to mitigate future relationship and process conflict.

Conflict can be scary and managing conflict often feels very intimidating. But it does not always have to be that way! Conflict can be good for teams. By exploring the nuances of team level conflict, hopefully, it will be easier to identify the types of team conflict you observe, manage them early on, and reap the benefits of task conflict.

References:

De Drue, C. K. W. (2006). When too little or too much hurts: Evidence for a curvilinear relationship between task conflict and innovation in teams. Journal of Management, 32(1), 83-107.

Jehn, K. A. (1997). A qualitative analysis of conflict types and dimensions in organizational groups. Administrative Science Quarterly, 42, 530-557.

Maltarich, M. A., Kukenberger, M., Reilly, G., & Mathieu, J. (2018). Conflict in teams: Modeling early and late conflict states and the interactive effects of conflict processes. Groups and Organization Management, 43(1), 6-37.

Nemeth, C., & Chiles, C. (1988). Modelling courage: The role of dissent in fostering independence. European Journal of Social Psychology, 18, 275-280.

O’Neill, T. A., McLarnon, M. J. W., Hoffart, G. C., Woodley, H. J. R., & Allen, N. J. (2018). The structure and function of team conflict state profiles. Journal of Management, 44(2), 811-836.

Van Dyne, L., & Saaverda, R. (1996). A naturalistic minority influence experiment: Effects on divergent thinking, conflict, and originality in work-groups. British Journal of Social Psychology, 35, 151-168.

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