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Conflict constitutes an inevitable and commonplace element of social life. Hence, it is highly prevalent in the organizational arena (De Dreu & Van de Vliert, 1997) and is a significant element in the dynamics of organizational work teams. Members of work groups and teams within organizations experience and manage conflict with their counterparts on an everyday basis.
Work teams as increasingly popular organizational structures serve to improve quality, increase efficiency, and ensure organizational sustainability. Effectiveness in group functioning depends to a large extent on the strength of the relationships within the team (such as trust in team members), which, in turn, nourish the nature of their internal interactions (Tjosvold, West, & Smith, 2003). Scholars in the area of organizational behavior and management have argued that the quality of work team interpersonal bonds is significantly affected by the group’s ability to manage conflicts. Moreover, the organizational reality of a highly diverse work group composition increases the propensity for intragroup conflicts, thus turning effective dispute management into a vital asset.
Modes of handling disagreements in work teams constitute critical determinants of conflict outcomes (De Dreu, 2006). Conflict can be harmful if managed destructively, adversely affecting the quality of teams’ decisions, as well as their productivity, innovation, and members’ satisfaction. Conversely, constructive ways of handling conflicts provide an opportunity for surfacing problems, tracing mutually beneficial solutions, enhancing motivation to engage interpersonal tensions, and eventually, reaffirming team members’ confidence in intrateam relations and fostering team performance.
Research on conflict management in work teams has proceeded in two main directions. One direction has focused on conflict types and their associations with conflict outcomes (De Dreu & Weingart, 2003b; Jehn, 1997), while the other has evolved around the dynamics of conflict management (Alper, Tjosvold, & Law, 2000; Ayoko, Härtel, & Callan, 2002; Desivilya & Eizen, 2005), attempting to distinguish constructive conflict management processes from their destructive counterparts.
This research-paper attempts to review and integrate findings derived from both streams of research. It is aimed to elucidate major patterns of managing conflict in work teams, focusing on the bipolar constructive-destructive dimension and its determinants. First, the nature of conflicts in work teams and their antecedents will be explored. Then the dynamics of conflict management will be explicated. Next, outcomes of conflicts in work teams will be addressed, as related to the types of conflicts and patterns of handling internal disputes. Finally, future research directions and applications to team management will be discussed.
The research-paper is based on a review of interdisciplinary research, thus representing various methodologies, including experimental studies and both quantitative and qualitative field research.
The Nature Of Conflicts In Teams And Their Antecedents
As indicated earlier, conflict constitutes one of the rudimentary processes in teams. De Dreu and Weingart (2003a) defined intragroup conflict as a process emanating from interpersonal tensions among team members owing to real or perceived disparities. Inputs of team members and their interactions in work teams involve both social and mission-related aspects. Hence, conflict processes may touch upon task and relationship issues. Accordingly, Jehn (1997) distinguished between relationship (or affective) and task (or cognitive) conflict and developed separate definitions of these two concepts. Relationship (affective) conflict refers to an awareness of interpersonal incompatibilities, reflecting interpersonal frictions; tensions; clash of personalities; and disagreements about personal values, taste, and interpersonal styles. This type of conflict is associated with the emotional aspects of interpersonal relations in work teams. Task (cognitive) conflict pertains to an awareness of differences in opinions and perspectives with respect to the work team’s tasks, entailing divergent perceptions concerning distribution of resources, work procedures, and policies. In contrast with the emotionally driven relationship conflict, this type of intrateam discord is embedded in the substantive elements of teams’ tasks, and is thus viewed by some scholars as more intellectual in nature.
In addition to elucidating the characteristics of conflicts, scholars of organizations and management have investigated the triggers of relationship and task conflicts in work teams. Among a variety of potential antecedents, diversity and team’s geographical arrangements—collocated versus distributed—are noteworthy.
Diversity as a Trigger of Conflicts in Work Teams
Diversity denotes variation in a wide range of team members’ characteristics, including professional background and expertise, tenure, and salient demographic features such as age, gender, race and ethnicity. Mohammed and Angell (2004) distinguished between surface-level and deep-level diversity. Surface-level diversity refers to the extent of demographic variation in a work unit, whereas deep-level diversity purports to disparities in personality, attitudes, and values.
Both quantitative and qualitative studies of work teams provided substantial evidence that members of groups characterized by high levels of diversity experience more conflicts than their counterparts in homogeneous groups do. This finding referred primarily to the relationships between surface-level diversity and relationship conflict, showing that greater demographic diversity was associated with more relationship conflict. Members of heterogeneous work teams experienced interpersonal tensions due to cultural differences reflected in divergent beliefs and values. Researchers have attempted to explain the triggering effect of surface-level diversity on relationship conflict drawing on Tajfel’s and Turner’s (1986) social identity and social categorization theories and Byrne’s (1997) similarity-attraction paradigm. The basic tenet of the social categorization and social identity conceptual framework posits that people tend to define and distinguish themselves from others based on their group membership. Encountering individuals from different groups sets up the categorization process and gives rise to a tendency to form a more favorable image of one’s own group in comparison to the attitudes toward individuals from dissimilar groups. This process allows individuals to protect and maintain positive social identity.
The similarity-attraction paradigm offers a different explanation to the biased tendency to favor members of one’s own group over “outsiders.” According to this model, people are more attracted to and prefer to interact with similar individuals because they expect thereby to reaffirm their values and beliefs. Notwithstanding the differences in the theoretical approaches, both explanations point to the same outcome of in-group favoritism, which accentuates preexisting stereotypes and prejudice, and enhances antagonism between diverse team members, thus increasing the odds of relationship conflicts.
Mohammed and Angell (2004) extended prior research directions on the relationships between diversity and conflict in work teams. They studied the effects of two types of diversity—surface-level (variation in gender and ethnicity) and deep-level (variation in a personality characteristic of extraversion and in perceptions of time urgency)—on relationship conflict in ad hoc teams composed of business students working on a project over a period of several months. The researchers included additional variables that could potentially moderate the negative effect of diversity on relationship conflict in the study. Among these factors was team orientation, namely, an individual’s preference and feeling comfortable working in groups, which was expected to mitigate the effects of surface-level diversity and group processes (communication, cooperation, and leadership) presumably attenuating the adverse impact of deep-level diversity. In line with the hypothesis, team orientation mitigated the adverse influence of gender diversity on relationship conflicts, making team members less bothered by relationship conflict in spite of gender differences. In a similar vein, effective team processes attenuated relationship conflict triggered by deep-level diversity. The study also indicated that the effects of both types of diversity on conflict decreased over time. Conceivably, team members have learned how to deal with conflict; alternatively, in order to avoid relationship conflict, they minimized contact and interactions with diverse individuals in the work group.
Other scholars further refined the diversity and conflict links, using the notion of faultline (Lau & Murnighan, 1998). This concept refers to hypothetical dividing lines that split a group into subgroups and give rise to polarization between in-group and out-group identities. Faultlines may be activated by a single salient attribute in a specific context—for example, age in dealing with issues of pensions; parent company affiliations in joint ventures; race, ethnicity, or gender while dealing with affirmative action; or nationality when transnational teams meet face-to-face. An underlying premise of the faultline model states that the intergroup dynamic between socially diverse subgroups yields stronger effects on conflict than the intergroup dynamic between individuals from different social groups yields.
Polzer, Crisp, Jarvenpaa, & Kim (2006), who studied 45 teams of graduate students in 10 countries, showed that location served as a characteristic stimulating faultlines, thus engendering conflicts in work teams and reducing trust among team members. The next section addresses the role of work groups’ geographical arrangements in producing conflicts in work teams. Distributed teams will be compared with their collocated counterparts.
Work Groups’ Geographical Arrangement as an Antecedent of Conflicts in Work Teams
Geographically dispersed teams have become an increasingly prevailing work group arrangement, capturing the attention of organization scholars. Some of this work revolved around group dynamics, especially conflict processes in such teams as contrasted with their collocated counterparts. Research findings have indicated that the former experienced more relationship and especially task conflicts than the latter experienced. This result can be partially explained by the lack of shared identity in geographically distributed teams, which erodes trust and a sense of loyalty toward distant team members, leading instead to interpersonal tensions among geographically separated team members—namely, to relationship conflict.
Greater propensity for task conflict in distributed teams in comparison to collocated teams was attributed to paucity of shared context—namely, standardized work processes, tools, and systems. Lack of shared work procedures precipitates misunderstandings and divergence in approaches and interferes with coordination efforts, thus enhancing task conflict in distributed teams.
Both shared identity, which may moderate relationship conflict, and shared context, which may attenuate task conflict, require spontaneous information exchange among team members. Such open communication processes appear more problematic in distributed than in collocated teams.
Based on a study of research and development teams in two U. S. states, Hinds and Mortensen (2005) showed that open communication channels may enhance the salience of shared identity by highlighting similarities and joint concerns. Shared identity, in turn, strengthens psychological bonds between distant members, thus moderating relationship conflict. In a similar vein, open and spontaneous communication helps to clarify common work procedures, thereby contributing to shared context, which then mitigates task conflict. The researchers have also found that open information exchange has an independent moderating effect on the relationships between geographical distribution and conflict; it helps to identify conflict as well as to handle it.
Comparison between distributed and collocated teams revealed that distributed teams benefit more from spontaneous communication than their collocated counterparts do. Presumably, distributed teams are more vulnerable to conflict and especially to its escalation; hence, they may need more active approach to conflict detection and management.
As indicated earlier, conflicts in work teams constitute prevalent experiences of team members. Thus far, we have illuminated the nature of this frequent phenomenon in work groups, presenting two major types of conflicts—relationship conflict and task conflict—and some of their main antecedents, such as team diversity and geographical distribution.
Discords in work teams can be harmful if managed destructively, leading to poor outcomes such as impaired decisions, low productivity, little innovation, members’ dissatisfaction, and impoverished well being. Conversely, constructive ways of dealing with conflicts may help recognize interpersonal problems in work teams, facilitate tracing mutually beneficial solutions, boost motivation to engage interpersonal tensions, build interpersonal trust, and improve team performance.
How do work teams manage the everyday reality of internal conflicts? The next part of this research-paper moves to explore the dynamics of conflicts in work teams: various approaches to managing internal discords and their developmental course while emphasizing the distinction between constructive and destructive processes.
The Dynamics Of Conflict Management: Constructive Versus Destructive Processes Of Coping With Conflicts In Work Teams
This research-paper follows the fundamental assumption—advanced by conflict and organization scholars—that effectiveness of work teams stems to a large extent from the quality of their internal relationships. Team members’ approach and the actual ways they handle internal conflicts have a considerable impact on the attributes of their internal bonds. Hence, thorough understanding of orientations, approaches, and actual conflict management behaviors in work teams is deemed to be essential.
In an attempt to elucidate the dynamics of conflict in work teams, we first delineate several prevailing conceptual frameworks analyzing conflict management and stressing their application in research on work teams. Then we proceed to explicate the factors governing the choice of various conflict handling patterns, highlighting the antecedents of constructive in contrast with destructive conflict management processes.
Approaches to Conflict Management
Conflict management refers to behaviors team members employ to deal with their real and perceived differences, some relating to emotionally driven conflicts (relationship conflicts) and others addressing the more substantive elements of their discords (task conflicts). Most studies on interpersonal conflict management patterns have adopted the Dual Concern Model, originally proposed by Blake and Mouton (1964) later adopted with some modifications by several scholars: Pruitt and Rubin (1986), Rahim (1983), and Thomas (1976). The basic tenet of this model postulates that the conflict management mode employed by an individual emanates from two underlying motives: concern for self and concern for the other party. The strength of each of these two motivational orientations according to conflict scholars may vary as a function of the particular conflict situation, with differing emphases on each of the two concerns yielding five major conflict management patterns: (a) dominating (high concern for self and low concern for the other), reflected in attempts to persuade the other side to accept one’s position, or use of more extreme means in coercing the other to give in, such as harassing the other, making threats and positional commitments—that is, posing ultimatum; (b) obliging (low concern for self and high concern for the other), manifested in behaviors such as acquiescence with the other and admitting one’s own mistakes; (c) avoiding (low concern for self and low concern for the other)—that is, evading confrontation of the conflict issues, illustrated by reactions such as changing the subject of the conversation and refraining from contact with the counterpart; (d) integrating (high concern for self and high concern for the other), reflected in exchange of information concerning interests and priorities, searching mutually beneficial alternatives for solution, and providing constructive feedback to the other’s suggestions; and (e) compromising (moderate concern for self and moderate concern for the other, in Rahim’s version of the model), manifested in behaviors such as seeking and proposing midway solutions.
Desivilya and Eizen (2005) proposed an integrated conceptual framework designed to portray conflict management in work teams. It incorporates the specific conflict management strategies that emerged from the Dual Concern Model with elements of the theoretical frameworks derived from research on conflict in close relationships (Fincham, 2003; Rusbult, 1993). The patterns identified in these studies captured two fundamental dimensions of dispute management: engagement-avoidance and constructiveness-destructiveness. Conflict engagement entails overt confrontation of conflict issues, whereas avoidance reflects evasion rather than directly addressing conflict issues. The engagement style of conflict management is exemplified by statements of personal criticism, threats, disclosing information about oneself, and suggesting potential solutions of the problem, while avoidance is demonstrated by changing topics for discussion or postponing discussion.
The other global dimension of conflict approach pertains to the potential outcome of conflict management behavior—namely, whether it is constructive or destructive to the relationship between the partners (or group members). Constructive actions reflect cooperative and prosocial behavior aimed at preserving relationships. In contrast, destructive behavior is denoted by antisocial, competitive behavior that is potentially disruptive to the relationship or that reduces the odds of repairing the bonds.
Joining components of the dual concern model with the bidimensional model identified in the close relationships context allows a wider representation of individual choices in handling intrateam conflicts. The integrated model comprises five patterns according to which individual members may manage intrateam conflicts: (a) dominance (engaging-destructive); (b) integration (engaging-constructive); (c) compromising (engaging-moderately constructive); (d) obliging (avoiding-constructive); and (e) avoidance (avoiding-destructive). The obliging and avoidance patterns (which are low on concern for self) constitute reactions of avoiding intrateam conflict situations, in contrast with the dominance, integrating, and compromising patterns (high to moderate on concern for self), which entail conflict engaging behaviors. With respect to the second global dimension (constructiveness-destructiveness), the consequences of the dominating and avoiding patterns (low on concern for others) are presumably more destructive to the relationships among the team members in comparison to the potentially constructive ramifications of the integrating, compromising, and obliging patterns (high to moderate on concern for others).
Tjosvold (1993, 2006) has embraced a somewhat different theoretical approach in his extensive program of research on conflict in work teams. It rests on the fundamental assumption, advanced by Morton Deutsch (1973), that individuals’ perceptions about the ways their goals are related to those of their counterparts govern their approach and actual interactions in conflict situations. According to this conceptual perspective, individuals may then communicate to the other party either cooperative or competitive intentions. Thus, if they believe that their own goals are positively linked to the goals of the other side, they will most likely adopt the cooperative conflict management strategy, allowing all the parties to pursue and attain their goals. A belief in positive association among the parties’ goals means that all participants involved in the conflict situation can win or be successful in their attempts to resolve the conflict in a mutually satisfactory way. Conversely, if protagonists involved in a conflict situation view their goals as negatively associated—namely, if they perceive that accomplishing the goals by one party makes the counterparts less likely to attain their goals—they will tend to embrace the competitive strategy. In other words, such a “zero-sum” orientation precipitates use of tactics designed to outdo the other, or fosters attempts to win at the other party’s expense or loss.
Ayoko et al. (2002) proposed a similar dichotomous typology of managing conflicts in work groups, focusing mainly on communication patterns that shape members’ interactions in teams. According to these scholars, cooperative approach to conflict is reflected in attempts to communicate with the other team members in ways that promote convergence and inclusion in their interpersonal interactions. Efforts to use common language, clarifying the meaning of messages and discussing familiar topics, illustrate such cooperative tendencies. By contrast, divergent communication designed to exclude some team members from interpersonal interactions represents competitive orientation to conflict management, demonstrated by use of specific dialect or accent, talking about unfamiliar subjects, and reluctance to provide clarification.
Although the typologies presented above differ in terms of their theoretical emphasis, with the first two (the dual concern model and the integrated version) stressing the motivational underpinnings of approaches to conflict management, Tjosvold’s (1993, 2006) underscoring the individuals’ beliefs (cognitions) concerning the parties’ goal structure and Ayoko et al. (2002) highlighting the communication tendencies, they share the distinction between constructive and destructive orientations. The former entails concern about the team’s internal relations, and therefore, efforts to promote mutual understanding, interpersonal attitudes, trust, and the ability to work together at present and in the future. By contrast, destructive orientation involves lack or minimal concern about the internal bonds, negative mutual attitudes among team members, and difficulties at coordinating members’ efforts that is low capacity for joint work. We now turn to address the potential precursors of these two distinct approaches to conflict management, based on existing research findings.
Antecedents of conflict Management Patterns in Work Teams
Relatively limited number of studies examined the processes of conflict management and their antecedents in work teams. Ayoko and associates’ (2002) qualitative study on business students’ teams constitutes one pertinent example. It is noteworthy that most of these scholars’ results were cross-validated by data collected through three methods—(a) observations, (b) interviews, and (c) self-report questionnaires—thus affording greater confidence in the findings.
These researchers showed that cultural diversity affected the way that team participants approached conflict. Members who constituted the cultural mainstream tended to ignore and exclude their minority counterparts from intrateam interactions, especially at the initial phases of the group process. Such exclusive communication patterns were reflected in interruptions of the minority members’ speech, their exclusion from turn taking, and not maintaining eye contact with them. The minority team members themselves refrained from participation owing to fear and insecurity about their language proficiency. Thus, members of the majority exhibited competitive tactics associated with destructive conflict management while members of the minority accommodated their behavior accordingly by withdrawing from intrateam interaction. At later stages of the group process, more constructive interactions between minority and majority members have developed, particularly if team leaders who were capable of managing discourse and reinstating disrupted and deteriorated communications emerged.
Ayoko and associates’ (2002) research also indicated that members of heterogeneous groups frequently resorted to conflict avoidance in order to ease tensions and prevent conflict escalation. Evading direct confrontation was designed to reverse the destructive conflict course and instead foster constructive conflict dynamics.
Hinds and Mortensen’s (2005) study on multinational research and development teams pointed at another mechanism of halting conflict escalation, which was effective in geographically distributed work groups. This entailed spontaneous communication that, in turn, fostered perceptions of shared identity and promoted information exchange designed to develop shared work procedures. Both shared identity and better understanding of common work procedures allowed team members to recognize conflicts and cope with intragroup tensions prior to escalation of the destructive dynamics.
The findings obtained in research on particular kind of teams—high on the diversity dimension and geographically dispersed—allude to more general precursors of conflict management in work teams, which can be classified into two major categories: one related to emotional aspects (e.g., associated with social identity) and the other linked with cognitive aspects (e.g., level of common understanding of other team members, work procedures, and etc.). Such a categorization leads back to the relationship conflict and task conflict distinction. Indeed, several studies examined the association between these two conflict types and conflict management patterns in work teams. Rentsch’s and Zelno’s (2003) work constitutes a significant contribution to our knowledge concerning the role of conflict type in preferences of conflict management modes.
These researchers studied intrateam dynamics in work groups, where members perform complex, unstructured tasks such as strategic decision making. According to their theoretical perspective, team members’ interpretations of their counterparts’ action-related intentions markedly influence conflict behavior in work teams. As such Rentsch and Zelno’s (2003) conceptual framework converges with Tjosvold’s (1993, 2006) typology presented earlier, which also views intrateam conflict management as derived from members’ perceptions about the structure of their goal-interdependence. Competitive and cooperative intentions communicated to team members therefore constitute critical factors in directing the conflict course.
Following this line of reasoning, Rentsch and Zelno (2003) have focused on the congruence among team members’ cognitions. Specifically, they have argued that greater correspondence among team members’ interpretations of action intentions (especially about positive team orientation) fosters more effective and efficient conflict management interactions. Such congruent cognitions enhance mutual understanding among team members, encourage convergent and inclusive communication, and foster successful coordination. Consequently, divergent views about work procedures and other work-related issues (task conflict) will most likely be considered as legitimate disagreements, which need to be addressed in a cooperative manner, seeking mutually acceptable solutions. Conversely, if team members’ perceptions reveal incongruent views of action-related intentions, such as when some of them erroneously construe task conflict as relationship conflict (e.g., interpret constructive criticism directed at them as personal attacks), adoption of competitive conflict management strategy will be more likely. Such contentious approach may reflect various adverse tactics designed to undermine the others’ actions, including personal attacks directed at other team members.
Beyond incidental use of contentious tactics, inaccurate and incongruent cognitions of team members can incite destructive conflict course. This is especially likely when team members repeatedly misattribute the others’ behaviors and view them as interfering with the team’s goals and norms. Such destructive escalatory dynamics discourages intrateam information exchange and increases the likelihood of power struggles. By contrast, constructive dynamics of handling intrateam conflicts is more likely to develop when team members hold congruent perceptions about the positive value of openness and constructive controversy in promoting the group’s goals. In the latter case, they tend to treat internal discords as task conflicts rather than emotionally colored personal incompatibilities. Task conflicts, unlike their affective (relationship) counterpart, encourage cooperative strategic choice designed to foster attainment of work team goals and strengthen the internal bonds among team members.
De Dreu’s (2006) and Desivilya and Yagil’s (2005) research provide some support to Rentsch and Zelno’s (2003) arguments with regard to the relationships between the nature of conflict and the ways it is managed. Empirical evidence derived from studies on work teams has indicated that affective (relationship) conflict mitigates the use of cooperative strategies such as collaborative problemsolving behaviors and precipitates adoption of contentious and coercive strategies.
Another approach to study the antecedents of conflict management in work teams is based on the distinction between variables referring to personal characteristics of team members and variables purporting to situational characteristics of a team.
Desivilya and associates (Desivilya & Eizen, 2005; Desivilya & Yagil, 2005) followed this line of research concentrating on intact work teams, where members usually experience interdependence stemming from three major sources: (a) goals (definition of goals on a team basis), (b) tasks (interaction among team members, which is necessary for task performance), and (c) outcomes (interdependence in feedback and rewards). Consequently, conflicts in these types of work groups derive both from divergent interests as well as from diversity of outlooks and points of view (often diverse values or ideologies) and usually emerge in the context of decision-making processes.
That program of field research attempted to elucidate the motivational antecedents of preferences for conflict management. One study conducted on young adults’ community service communes revolved around antecedents of conflict engagement versus conflict-avoidance and constructive versus destructive dispute management styles. Specifically, it investigated the contributions of individual difference variables—that is, two forms of self-efficacy, global and domain-specific social self-efficacy—and a team-related factor—namely, members’ sense of group identification —to their intrateam strategic choices.
The findings indicated a positive association between global self-efficacy and dominating pattern, and indicated a negative association with the pattern of obliging. Team members who viewed themselves as highly capable of attaining their goals in a variety of areas tended to pursue them persistently to attain their expected outcomes in conflict situations. Highly efficacious (globally) team members were presumably concerned with resolving intragroup conflicts to achieve high benefits for themselves, regardless of the potential destructive effect that such actions might have on their relationships with their teammates. The result showing that commune members with high global self-efficacy were unlikely to concede in conflict situations further attests to such a self-promoting motivation evinced by individuals with high global self-efficacy.
Interestingly, overall confidence in one’s capabilities to accomplish a variety of tasks fell short of predicting the other two alternative conflict engagement modes: integrating and compromising. Instead, preferences for these patterns were tied to domain-specific self-efficacy. Social self-efficacy reflects an individual’s confidence in her or his capability to form and maintain social relationships, cooperate with others, and effectively manage various interpersonal conflicts. In accordance with this conception, the findings indicated that commune members with a high sense of social self-efficacy facing an intrateam dispute tended to adopt a conflict approach reflecting both engagement and constructive features—particularly, the integrating pattern—in resolving the conflict.
The results illuminate the significance of the two forms of self-efficacy in managing real-life conflicts in field settings, encountered by individuals in intact teams, where members maintain continuing and intense relationships. Generalized (global) self-efficacy clearly contributes to the active stance, but it is primarily the self-centered approach (concern for self) that determines strategic choice in intra-group conflict situations. The domain-specific, socially oriented element of self-efficacy adds an essential supplement to the active engagement proclivity—namely, the prosocial component, which facilitates the choice of genuine collaborative means of coping with internal conflicts.
As to a team characteristic reflecting members’ sense of group identification, the findings showed that individuals experiencing a high identification were less inclined to employ the dominating pattern, which carries destructive implications for intrateam relationships. However, perceptions of team cohesion did not facilitate adopting constructive modes of conflict management. Group identification did not directly predict any of the cooperative modes: integrating, compromising, or obliging. The study also showed that commune members with a high sense of social self-efficacy and strong group identification were inclined to adopt a compromising mode, considered as an engaging and moderately constructive strategy, whereas the odds of their low group-identification counterparts choosing this way of dealing with internal conflicts were slim. Thus, a team member’s expectation of mutual concessions and willingness to act upon them depends not only on social self-efficacy, but also on the extent of the individual’s identification with the group. By contrast, a high sense of social self-efficacy conveys both active (engaging) and prosocial (constructive) aspects to the orientation, which is most compatible with the integrating mode (being both decisive with respect to one’s own needs and actively pursuing them, as well as considerate regarding the needs of others).
Another study, conducted on intact medical teams, was also aimed at identifying factors guiding the choice of strategies for dealing with intragroup disputes. It focused on the role of emotions and of the perceived nature of conflicts in team members’ preferences for conflict management patterns. The study examined five categories of dispute management modes: (a) integrating, (b) compromising, (c) dominating, (d) obliging, and (e) avoiding, thus again comparing constructive versus destructive, and engaging (active) versus avoiding (passive) approaches.
In line with expectations, the results showed that conflict management patterns were linked to emotional reactions toward group members. Specifically, team members who have experienced positive emotions toward others in their work group tended to adopt the cooperative and constructive mode of conflict management (integrating and compromising). Conversely, those who have experienced adverse emotions opted for competitive and destructive patterns for handling intrateam disputes. Unexpectedly, the contentious conflict management preference was also positively related to positive emotions, although the relationship of positive emotions with a cooperative pattern was much stronger. A possible explanation for this finding may stem from the fact that the dimension of positive emotions contained a vigilance component. Thus, both types of conflict engaging-active patterns—that is, dominating and integrating—were positively related to the “positive” category of emotions comprising the vigilance component. By contrast, the passive pattern of avoiding was related to negative emotions only.
The findings also lent support to the premise that the way conflict issues are perceived determines the individual’s emotional reactions. Specifically, the prevalence of interpersonal tensions (relationship conflict) markedly contributed to adverse emotional responses that, in turn, fostered preferences for contentious-destructive modes of dealing with intragroup conflicts.
The study thus points at a differentiated pattern underlying the choice of destructive in contrast with constructive modes. The findings indicated that negative emotions mediate the association of relationship conflict with the dominating pattern of conflict management, suggesting that type of conflict has a more significant, albeit indirect, effect on the choice of destructive conflict management modes than on constructive modes. Relationship conflict seems to precipitate destructive conflict dynamics primarily by means of creating adverse emotional climate.
Prior to moving to the next section, the major insights concerning conflict management dynamics in work teams are summarized. We have presented several typologies of conflict management approaches in work teams, differing in their theoretical emphases; some (the dual concern model and the integrated version) stressing the motivational underpinnings of conflict management, some accentuating the individuals’ cognitions concerning the parties’ goal structure (Tjosvold, 1993, 2006), and yet another highlighting the communication tendencies. Notwithstanding conceptual nuances, these frameworks share the distinction between constructive and destructive orientations.
Subsequently, we outlined major research findings tracing the antecedents of constructive versus destructive conflict management in work teams. Diversity, notably, team composition comprising cultural mainstream subgroup versus a minority, geographical distribution, and perception of prevalent relationship conflict appear to enhance team members’ tendency to employ destructive conflict management patterns. These adverse proclivities seem to be mitigated when emergent team leaders in heterogeneous work teams effectively manage intrateam communications, distributed team members are capable of spontaneous communications or team members experience a high sense of group identification. Preferences for constructive dispute handling modes are encouraged in teams where members experience positive emotions toward one another and when team members tend to view intrateam conflicts as legitimate differences of opinions (task conflicts) that need to be resolved in mutually acceptable ways. Finally, individuals characterized by high levels of social self-efficacy are also inclined to adopt constructive conflict management strategies for dealing with conflicts in work teams.
What are the outcomes of conflicts and the consequences of constructive in comparison to destructive conflict management dynamics in work teams? Under what circumstances (if any?) are conflicts in work teams functional? The next section addresses these queries.
Outcomes Of Conflicts And Consequence Of Dispute Management Dynamics In Work Teams
In an attempt to provide a broad perspective on the outcomes and consequences of conflicts in work teams, a multifaceted approach is embraced; namely, multiple outcome variables and indicators are examined. These include group performance indicators such as goal attainment, decision quality, efficiency and innovation; team members’ perceptions concerning intrateam relations; and indicators of individuals’ health, well-being, and satisfaction.
Moreover, in order to meaningfully address the issue of conflicts’ potential contribution to team effectiveness (the functional versus dysfunctional aspects of conflicts), we relate the myriad of outcomes to conflict types and to conflict management dynamics discussed in previous sections.
There has been a common assumption among some practitioners in the area of management and organizational behavior that conflict in organizations may be detrimental to team functioning, and hence, should be suppressed (because it impedes cooperation and productivity). Contrary to this contention, most scholars in the organizational conflict arena have argued that there are complex relationships between conflict in work teams and its consequences on team effectiveness.
Effective teamwork has been conceptualized as a process that fosters internal interactions by means of mutually helpful communication, coordination, and cooperation designed to facilitate successful completion of tasks and development of high-quality relationships among team members. Thus, conflict can be positively related to some indicators of effectiveness, such as creativity, innovation, and decision quality. At the same time, conflict can be negatively related to other indicators such as members’ satisfaction, their perception with respect to relationships quality, team efficiency, and perceptions of decision quality and effectiveness.
Deutsch (2000) has asserted that the influence of intrateam conflict on the nature of internal relations and its outcome depends on the conflict management processes: destructive course may indeed adversely affect team relations and productivity, whereas constructive controversy may improve team functioning. In a similar vein, Tjosvold (2006) has argued that conflict can provide motivation for engaging intrateam discords, and that competent management of these internal conflicts, despite transient disruption, strengthens relationships among team members. This researcher showed in several studies that confidence in a team’s relationships and faith in its capability to manage conflicts, both from the managers and members’ perspectives, contributed to team effectiveness. Thus, engaging conflict constructively—that is, adoption of cooperative approach—constitutes a useful way to build and reinforce members’ relations; this, in turn, leads to improved performance of a work team.
Other scholars (e.g., Amason, 1996; Jehn, 1997) focused on the nature of conflict, especially on the distinction between task and relationship conflict and on the impact of each kind of discord on conflict processes and outcomes. Indeed, they provided empirical evidence attesting to functional aspects of task conflict under some circumstances in some teams, such as in strategic decision-making teams, performing complex, unstructured tasks, whereas relationship conflict was generally found detrimental in work teams.
In light of the aforementioned findings, organizational conflict researchers have postulated that the key to fostering productive conflict lies in minimizing relationship conflicts while inspiring task conflict; namely, encouraging the group to tolerate disagreements without getting emotionally involved. Engaging task conflict may increase members’ understanding of decisions and their commitment to these decisions and enhance perceptions of justice because their voices have been heard.
Desivilya’s research (Desivilya & Yagil, 2005) has also alluded to the positive value of task conflicts, at the very least reflecting the functional aspect of this conflict type in enhancing the involvement of team members in group missions.
A recent meta-analytical study carried out by DeDreu and Weingart (2003a) has cast doubt on the functional aspects of task conflict. The findings have indicated that both types of conflicts (task and relationship) had adverse effects on team effectiveness, albeit the former were somewhat less negative than the latter, especially as reflected in team members’ satisfaction.
Despite the general consensus among organizational conflict scholars regarding the dysfunctional attributes of relationship conflict, Tjosvold (e.g., Tjosvold et al., 2005; Tjosvold, 2006) has reaffirmed on the basis of series of studies his former conclusion that the type of conflicts may not necessarily be crucial in determining the outcomes of conflict; rather, the approach embraced for dealing with conflict—cooperative versus competitive—is the key determinant of discords’ ramifications. Each type of conflicts may be constructively engaged.
Following that line of reasoning, Rentsch and Zelno (2003) have offered some suggestions on how to minimize the adverse effects of relationship conflict: greater congruence and accuracy among team members’ cognitions can attenuate intragroup interpersonal tensions and antagonism, thereby allowing constructive engagement with intrateam discords and promoting work team effectiveness.
Beyond the intricacies of the relationships among the nature of conflict, conflict management approach, and conflict outcomes, the type of measures used to assess conflict outcomes further magnifies the complexity ascribed to conflict’s functions in work teams. Several studies showed that conflict outcomes measured by means of team members’ self-reports have not coincided with their objectively measured counterparts. For instance, Mohammed’s and Angell’s (2004) study on ad hoc teams of business students revealed that relationship conflict was negatively associated with perceived performance, but was unrelated to objective performance. Akin to these results, Tjosvold et al. (2005) found that competitive approach to intrateam conflict management had adversely affected perceptions of team effectiveness, albeit did not have negative impact on actual performance.
The picture portrayed so far about the relationships between the nature of conflicts, conflict management approaches, and processes and conflict outcomes in work teams remains rather ambiguous and inconclusive. It is unclear how much weight carries the type of conflict in comparison with the importance of conflict management dynamics on a variety of conflict outcomes. What are the precise mechanisms linking the nature of conflicts to the ways they are handled, and how do they jointly contribute to team effectiveness? In an attempt to advance understanding of this complex web of relationships, scholars have begun to develop multifaceted models. Among these efforts the work of De Dreu and Weingart (2003a) is noteworthy.
They have proposed a contingency perspective. The central assumption underlying these scholars’ conceptual framework is that conflict influences individuals and the social systems where they function in different ways. Hence, one cannot examine solely one outcome variable such as group performance to fully grasp the phenomenon of conflict in teams. Consequently, they adopt a multifaceted approach, exploring multiple outcome variables: group performance and individual health and well-being. Furthermore, the myriad of outcomes depend on a variety of factors, such as the type of conflict, amount of conflict, the level of task uncertainty, and the approaches that the team embraces to handle conflict.
On basis of their review of the literature, they have concluded that task-related conflict requires mutual problemsolving and cooperative strategies in order to facilitate effective group performance. Additional factors may affect the relationships between task conflict, conflict management patterns, and team outcomes—notably, the level of task uncertainty. Thus, for teams engaging in tasks that entail a great deal of uncertainty and lacking a standard solution, task conflict may have benevolent effects on performance. The underlying explanation is that task uncertainty encourages careful scrutiny of the task and profound consideration of task information, which, in turn, fosters creation of novel, creative solutions.
According to the contingency perspective, the value of various conflict management approaches also depends on another defining feature of conflict; namely, whether team members experience conflict of interest (e.g. competition over scarce resources) or conflict over difference in opinions (conflict of understanding). In the former situation, a right-based approach (relying on rules and regulations while attempting to resolve the conflict) may have an advantage over collaborating. By contrast, in case of divergent opinions expressed by team members, collaborating and creative problem solving may prove a superior approach. Such a conflict management pattern would be more conducive to tracing solutions, which could be genuinely acceptable by team members.
In addition, the contingency perspective seems to suggest that different conflict management approaches may promote team-level outcomes, such as team performance in contrast with individual level outcomes such as well-being. Thus, engaging-active approaches (e.g., integrating or problem solving and dominating) may provide better outcomes on the individual level than nonconfrontational-passive approaches provide. Engaging conflict issues may promote well-being, enhance individual’s satisfaction, and prevent frustration and burnout in the long run, regardless of the type of conflict team members have been experiencing. However, confrontational approaches may not necessarily be optimal for enhancing group performance. Team level outcomes are not exclusively dependent on conflict management approach; rather, they are also affected by the type of conflict.
We have just demonstrated several possible ways of looking at the complexities of conflicts in work teams using the contingency perspective. Such multifaceted approach adopted by De Dreu and Weingart (2003b) and Jehn and Bendersky (2003) has opened numerous avenues for a thorough explication of conflict processes in the context of work groups in organizations.
We will conclude this section by presenting major findings from De Dreu’s (2006) recent study, which has pursued the contingency approach in one specific direction: clarifying the equivocal findings concerning the relations between task conflict and team effectiveness.
Previous research provided some clues as to the potential factors that can modify the association between task conflict and team effectiveness. For example, intrateam trust and positive climate may mitigate the potentially negative effect of task conflict on team performance. Moreover, it has been suggested that task conflict may adversely affect certain aspects of team effectiveness while having positive impact on other aspects. Specifically, this type of conflict can hinder short-term performance indicators such as efficiency of work processes and goal attainment, because coping with complex problems due to task conflict is both time and energy consuming.
However, task conflict may foster innovation, a team effectiveness indicator based precisely on the capacity to engage in learning, developing insight, and deep understanding. Yet such complex cognitive processes are unlikely to emerge and proceed under high levels of conflict. High-intensity task conflicts may precipitate distrust and interpersonal tensions (characteristic of relationship conflict), thus eroding the cognitive advantage of this type of conflict. Consequently, only moderate levels of task conflict (not very mild or very intense) may create the appropriate conditions to promote a team’s innovation. Intermediate levels of task-related disagreements may increase team members’ motivation to analyze the problem, thus enhancing the odds of jointly searching and finding novel ideas and solutions that are mutually beneficial.
Indeed, De Dreu (2006) showed that moderate levels of task conflict were related to high team innovativeness in two types of work teams: performing routine tasks and performing more complex tasks. He also found that information exchange and collaborative problem solving in task conflict situations further promoted innovation in these work teams. By contrast, task conflict adversely affected the odds of goal attainment. In short, the findings manifested the differential impact of task conflict on two kinds of team effectiveness indicators—innovation (a product of learning) and goal attainment (efficiency).
De Dreu’s (2006) recent research carries important theoretical implications. Both task and relationship conflict impair overall team effectiveness, impede efficiency, and often impede goal attainment. But unlike relationship conflict, task conflict at moderate levels can promote certain elements of team’s performance, for example, innovation and learning.
This research-paper attempted to present in a nutshell a state-of-the art picture on conflict management in work teams. However, it is by no means exhaustive of the rich and dynamic research endeavors in the organizational field.
The review has corroborated the prevailing assumption that conflicts in contemporary work teams constitute a daily phenomenon, especially due to increasingly diverse workforce and globalization leading to geographical distribution of work groups. The nature of discords in organizational teams is far from monolithic; this research-paper presented two major types of conflicts—relationship and task—highlighting their differential effects on conflict dynamics and outcomes.
Our review reveals a fairly complex framework underlying conflict dynamics in work teams, while the intricacies of the ties among the nature of conflict, the way they are managed, and their ramifications on team effectiveness are just beginning to unfold. Research provides some supporting evidence concerning the benevolent consequences of task conflict, especially when coupled with cooperative approach on intrateam relations and on innovation, but not necessarily on other indicators of team performance such as efficiency. Extant findings also indicate that the individual characteristics of team members, such as social self-efficacy and individual preference for teamwork, may foster adoption of constructive strategies for coping with intrateam conflict, but may also point at the important contribution of team climate factors, for example, positive emotions, group identification, trust, supportive leadership, and constructive communication in enhancing cooperative conflict management, and thereby, team effectiveness.
In sum, we understand much more about the triggers of conflicts in work teams, their nature, conflict management processes, and some of their outcomes, but a long journey is still ahead to fully elucidate the complex network of elements and their interconnections. A contingency perspective appears to be a promising approach to tackle this endeavor. Future research should also extend cross-cultural comparison studies, employ longitudinal designs and methods to trace turning points in intrateam conflict dynamics, and examine the effects of new combinations of individual characteristics and situational factors on conflict management and team effectiveness.
Finally, the research-paper points at several potential applications for management of work teams. Among these, raising awareness regarding the nature of conflict and its functions in team’s relations and performance, training team members and leaders in cooperative approaches to conflict management, especially in diverse and geographically distributed teams, and creating positive team climate—a sense of shared identity, group identification, and interpersonal trust—are deemed to be of the utmost importance.
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