When Conflict Doesn’t Require Conflict Resolution

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Most of us dread conflict and the need to engage in conflict resolution. Yet we may be reaping benefits from certain forms of conflict on the job, according to a new study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Researchers Gergana Todorova (the University of Miami), Julia B. Bear (Stony Brook University), and Laurie R. Weingart (Carnegie Mellon University) examined “task conflict,” which arises when members of a group or team debate, disagree, and argue about the task at hand. Distinct from “relationship conflict,” which involves personal differences and disagreement, task conflict is common in organizations. Employees often must solve problems jointly with coworkers within and outside their department.

The researchers surveyed 230 employees of a U.S. healthcare organization that provides services to senior citizens about their interactions with their coworkers. The employees were asked about the nature of any conflicts they experienced with coworkers and about any emotions and information these conflicts generated. Two months later, the employees responded to another survey about their satisfaction with their jobs.

Employees who engaged in mild task conflict gained more information about others’ opinions and perspectives—a crucial benefit in negotiation—than others did, the results showed. By contrast, those who engaged in intense task conflict gained less of this useful information. Mild task conflict occurs when employees debate and express different opinions and ideas, while intense task conflict involves more serious clashes and arguments about opinions and ideas.

Contrary to the common belief that conflict generates only negative emotions, those who gained more information about others’ perspectives through task conflict were more likely to feel energetic, interested, active, and attentive as a result of the conflict. Interestingly, these positive emotions were more pronounced among employees who were engaged in tasks with coworkers outside their immediate work groups. And employees who reported experiencing positive emotions as a result of task conflict also were more satisfied with their jobs than those who did not.

Overall, the study results suggest that, far from creating problems, mild levels of task conflict can have positive benefits for employees and organizations alike. The minor levels of conflict that often arise within work teams appear to trigger more positive, energizing emotions, greater information sharing, and higher job satisfaction than no conflict at all.

Related Article: Conflict Resolution and Negotiation Across Cultures


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