Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 135
Business Practice Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Constructive Conflict

Researchers explore the factors that encourage both destructive and constructive conflict.

When voices rise, faces flush, and tempers loosen tongues, everyone pays close attention. Conflict has arrived. Conflict is too dangerous to ignore, and conventional wisdom insists that prevention and avoidance is the best policy. This position builds on the assumption that conflict always leads to negative outcomes.

But Anil Menon, of Emory University, had a hunch. He noticed that psychologists often mention positive, constructive outcomes of well-managed conflicts in therapeutic settings, and he suspected that well-managed conflicts in business settings might also display positive outcomes. He reasoned that if some managers have discovered how to steer conflicts toward constructive expression and positive outcomes, then a well-crafted research study might locate them and verify this effect. It might also shed some light on the strategies these managers follow and the organizational factors that contribute to their efforts. Menon carried out such a study.

Menon analyzed the answers of 236 top marketing executives to a battery of questions concerning a recent new product introduction in their companies. The survey also included questions about conflict that accompanied this effort, and it assessed several organizational factors.

Menon found a clear difference between constructive and destructive conflict.

Conflict was constructive when managers guided discussions that included vigorous challenging of ideas, beliefs, and assumptions; when they encouraged people to consider new ideas from other departments; when they encouraged their own people to offer ideas to others; and when they encouraged the free expression of opinions and feelings. Under these conditions, mistakes were avoided, weaknesses were spotted early, differences were settled amicably, and the new products they introduced did significantly better in the marketplace.

Conflict was destructive when managers allowed subordinates to distort and withhold information, to express hostility and distrust, to create obstacles to impede decisions, and to overstate needs to falsely influence others. Under these conditions, mistakes and weaknesses went unnoticed, differences graduated into feuds, and the new products they introduced fared poorly in the marketplace.

Menon also found that close connections between departments encouraged constructive conflict. These close connections resulted in decisions made by one department affecting other departments, so managers were forced to carry on extensive interaction. And when these managers' roles were clear, and procedures to carry out tasks were written and widely understood, destructive conflict was discouraged.

Menon also learned that restricting decision authority had the opposite effect. When managers were discouraged from acting on their own authority, he found that destructive conflict was encouraged.

Professor Menon believes these organizational factors are important and he recommends that supervisors carefully clarify roles and responsibilities in areas that overlap, areas that require coordination, departments that are mutually dependent on each other, and any other roles or tasks that may be unclear. Formalizing roles and tasks also brings clarity and reduces destructive conflict.

Reference: Menon, Anil, Sundar B. Bharadwaj, and Roy Howell (1996). The Quality and Effectiveness of Marketing Strategy: Effects of Functional and Dysfunctional Conflict in Intraorganizational Relationships. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 24 (4), 299-313.

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