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Is There Such a Thing as Good Conflict?

Group dynamics experts often describe two distinct types of conflict. Task conflict occurs when group members disagree on how to go about accomplishing an assignment; relationship conflict arises when interpersonal tensions between group members are present. Task conflict is considered "good conflict" for helping to reduce groupthink, improve decision-making quality, and stimulate innovation. On the other hand, relationship conflict is judged to be "bad" because it promotes anxiety, hostility, and anger among group members. Because the two conflict types are thought to inversely influence group productivity, experts have long reasoned that team leaders should encourage task conflict while avoiding relationship conflict. But a group of researchers are challenging that wisdom and warning that both conflict types have the potential to be disruptive.

Researchers Leslie DeChurch, Katherine Hamilton, and Craig Haas suspected that mismanaging task conflict within a group could actually create relationship conflict between the group's members. In a role-playing experiment involving 270 undergraduate psychology students, the researchers assigned two-person teams a decision-making task. Participants were told they were leaders of a student government body charged with choosing organization members to attend a coveted trip. One person in each group (conflict sender) was instructed to insist that attendees be selected based on merit, while the other (conflict receiver) was told to argue for selecting members based on seniority. In addition, the conflict senders were randomly given written instructions for resolving the dispute using one of five commonly accepted conflict handling styles: collaborating, competing, compromising, accommodating, or avoiding. Each group then had five minutes to discuss the matter and attempt to resolve the conflict.

Experiment participants completed a short survey before and after meeting with their teammates. Overall, conflict receivers perceived higher levels of relationship conflict after the meetings than before. As they expected, DeChurch et al. found that some conflict management styles induced greater perceptions of relationship conflict than others did. Competing created the most relationship conflict while collaborating produced the least.

I've witnessed the frustration of managers, supervisors, and team leaders who struggle to resolve interpersonal conflict and deal with its aftermath. Broken coworker relationships are difficult to mend, and, in my experience, most managers are ill equipped for the job of fixing personal relationships. Managers are rarely trained counselors with the expertise to mediate relationship conflicts. As a result, most relationship conflicts are resolved through the costly voluntary or involuntary termination of one or more employees.

DeChurch et al. have highlighted how easily task conflict can escalate into relationship conflict and underscored the need to educate leaders on how to effectively manage -- and participate in -- task conflict.

READ THE ARTICLE: DeChurch, L. A., Hamilton, K. L., & Haas, C. (2007). Effects of conflict management strategies on perceptions of intragroup conflict. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 11(1), 66-78.
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Once again something that seems like common sense needs to be pointed out to us.

Thanks George.

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