Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 183
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Fighting at Work

Researcher explores workplace conflict and finds ways to manage it.

Looking daggers, pouting, grudges, yelling . . . if you've ever asked for strength, guidance, and tolerance to help you manage conflict among your people, Karen Jehn from the University of Pennsylvania may be an answer. She devoted over six months to her research carefully studying six departments in a large company. She interviewed people at length, watched them work for hours at a time, and became invisible to the people she quietly sat and observed. Just like a piece of furniture, she saw plenty: fights, screaming, throwing objects, and stomping fits.

Ms. Jehn is a careful researcher, and when she completed her collection of information and observations, she returned to her university and analyzed it. She found 3 distinct types of conflict: 1) conflict over relationships, 2) conflict over tasks and goals, and 3) conflict over the processes employed to carry out tasks, a type she called process conflict.

All 3 of these conflict types directly impact performance; however, their influence varies. High levels of all types of conflict hurt performance, but with task/goal conflict, moderate levels of conflict led to better performance than either low or high levels of this conflict.

She also identified 4 qualities that characterize the different types of conflict:

      1. Negative emotion - the amount of negative feelings expressed and felt by others.
      2. Acceptability - accepted rules about expressing conflict.
      3. Resolution potential - the likelihood that conflict can be quickly resolved.
      4. Importance - the size, scope, and duration of a conflict.

Working groups of people maintain rules for each type of conflict, and these have differing effects on performance. High performing groups, she found, encourage discussion of task/goal conflicts while at the same time discourage relationship and process conflicts. They show little negative emotion, and they expect that conflicts will be quickly resolved.

Ms. Jehn offers these guidelines to help you manage conflict:

    • Discourage relationship and process conflicts.
    • Discourage negative emotions.
    • Quickly resolve conflicts that do emerge, so prompt resolution becomes expected.
    • Be alert to emerging conflict and take corrective action, so importance can be minimized.
    • Establish clear procedures for completing tasks so employees don't argue about processes.
    • Enlist the help of employees by explaining the findings of this study to them and by encouraging them to regulate their own nteractions.

Here's an example from a large business to illustrate Professor Jehn's findings:

The department responsible for foreign business in the Swanson Corporation consistently enjoyed the top performance ranking in the company. Mr. Brewer manages this department, and he attributes much of their success to good decisions, but these decisions don't come easily. Contributing factors include a good deal of constructive criticism, careful scrutiny of alternatives, realistic questioning of each other's ideas and opinions, spirited "give and take" voicing alternate views, and fighting about which viewpoint is right. Conflict is definitely there, but Mr. Brewer keeps it focused on the tasks and goals at hand and never leaves a conflict simmering and festering. Although he's quite skilled at managing conflict, he attributes most of the credit to his people because he has trained them to regulate their own interactions.

There's plenty of conflict on our job sites and in our business offices. No one is immune, but this research provides new insights and new tools we can use to manage it.

Reference: Jehn, Karen A., (1997). A Qualitative Analysis of Conflict Types and Dimensions in Organizational Groups. Administrative Science Quarterly, 42 (September), 530-557.

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