Group Conflicts CAN be Helpful!

People disagree with coworkers on a variety of things. We all get it. But when disagreement among workers heats up into a real conflict, it becomes a concern. Researchers categorize workplace conflicts into two types: task conflict and relationship conflict.

  • Task conflict: This relates to differences in viewpoints and opinions pertaining to a group task. For example, a marketing team may debate internally whether the budget for the new commercial should be allocated more on YouTube or on a conventional TV channel.
  • Relationship conflict: This is interpersonal incompatibility, such as dislike among group members and feeling tension, frustration and friction when interacting with coworkers.

Conflicts can be rather toxic. A meta-analysis of 116 studies (consisting of 8,880 groups) found that relationship conflict led to poor team performance and team satisfaction [1].

On the other hand, though, the effect of task conflict on team performance is inconclusive – it neither clearly harms or helps a team. For example, in one study, task-related conflict actually facilitated group decision quality. In other words, when team members hold different opinions and are willing to exchange information, the talents recruited have more comprehensive KSAO (knowledge, skills, abilities, and other characteristics) [2]. Researchers thus believe that task conflict fosters group discussion and, as a result, is beneficial to team decisions and performance. However, in another study reviewing 75 studies of group conflict and team performance, task conflict was found to be harmful to team performance [3]. To date, researchers have no clear conclusion on the influence of task conflicts.

So, are task conflicts definitely harmful to teams? The answer is “Yes”, if a task conflict concurs with a relationship conflict. Results of a study confirmed that task conflict hurts team performance when there was a relationship conflict. Either the perception or actual presence of relationship conflict triggers team members’ feelings of being threatened and, as a result, biases their judgment. Team members would deliberately not use ideas and information from other group members, hindering team decision quality [4].

If a conflict is to a certain degree inevitable, is there anything a leader can do to eliminate the negative effects and promote the positive effects? Transformational leaders, who encourage followers to think from different perspectives and motivate followers to challenge the status quo, inspire group members to constructively debate ideas, enhancing the positive effects of conflict!

However, while encouraging interaction among group members, transformational leaders are meanwhile more likely to cause relationship confrontations in teams [5].

Although there is no overall remedy for group conflict, assisting with unbiased information exchange and creating a cohesive team may eliminate the negative consequences of group conflicts.


References:

[1] De Wit, F. R., Greer, L. L., & Jehn, K. A. (2012). The paradox of intragroup conflict: a meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97(2), 360-390.

[2] Schulz-Hardt, S., Brodbeck, F. C., Mojzisch, A., Kerschreiter, R., & Frey, D. (2006). Group decision making in hidden profile situations: dissent as a facilitator for decision quality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91(6), 1080-1093.

[3] De Dreu, C. K., & Weingart, L. R. (2003). Task versus relationship conflict, team performance, and team member satisfaction: a meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88(4), 741-749.

[4] De Wit, F. R. C., Jehn, K. A., & Scheepers, D. (2013). Task conflict, information processing, and decision-making: The damaging effect of relationship conflict. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 122(2), 177–189.

[5] Kotlyar, I., & Karakowsky, L. (2006). Leading conflict? Linkages between leader behaviors and group conflict. Small Group Research, 37(4), 377-403.

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