Conflict at Work

The literature on conflict at work is an extensive body that can be divided into two research streams. Some studies focus on the effective management of conflict, whereas others emphasize the emergence of conflict at work. The latter group of studies is pertinent to our understanding of the concept of conflict at work, its antecedents, and its consequences. Overall, studies demonstrate that some personality traits may be important antecedents of conflict. Although conflict can be measured across organizational levels, much of the research has focused on the interpersonal and intragroup levels and suggests that its outcomes affect both organizational effectiveness and personal well-being. Furthermore, conflict is a key construct in the recent work of occupational stress researchers, in which it is regarded as a leading social stressor.

A Framework for Understanding Conflict

Conflict has been defined in many ways across many studies, making it difficult to agree on one clear conceptualization of the construct. Nevertheless, researchers agree on certain definitional properties—for example, that at least two parties must be involved in order for conflict to arise. Recent work has advanced our under-standing of the definitional components of conflict. Specifically, Henri Barki and Jon Hartwick tested a framework for conflict that consists of behavioral, cognitive, and affective components. In this framework, the behavioral component of conflict is reflected in the interference of one party with the objectives of another. The cognitive component refers to disagreement between the parties and reflects a discrepancy between the parties’ interests, needs, or objectives. Finally, the affective component refers to the negative emotional states associated with the experience of conflict at work. This conceptualization of conflict supports a multiple-theme perspective in which all three components must be present in order for the situation to constitute a conflict.

Conflict can be further categorized according to two widely accepted sources: task and relationship conflict. Task conflict refers to conflict over policies, distribution of resources, or ways of completing a task. Relationship conflict refers to conflict emerging from personality clashes or emotionally charged interactions with others. Researchers such as Karen A. Jehn, Robin L. Pinkley, and Alan C. Amason support this distinction between sources of conflict. Hence, conflict can be conceptualized as comprising three definitional components (interference, disagreement, and negative emotion) and as being one of two types (task or relationship).

Methodological Issues in Conflict Measurement

Because of discrepancies in construct definition, measures of conflict are often created for the purpose of a specific study. Often, these measures lack sound psychometric properties. In fact, even widely used conflict measures that have reliability and validity support suffer from an incomplete conceptualization of the construct. For example, Jehn’s intragroup conflict measure differentiates between task and relationship conflict but measures mostly the disagreement component of conflict. M. Afzalur Rahim’s measure (ROCI-I), though it assesses the amount of intragroup, intrapersonal, or intergroup conflict, does not differentiate between sources of conflict. To advance our understanding of the impact of conflict on organizational functioning, a comprehensive measure of conflict is needed.

Personality and the Experience of Conflict

There is some evidence that individuals who are high in specific dispositional traits are likely to experience— or at least perceive—more conflict at work. For example, individuals who are high in trait anger, which is a tendency to perceive situations as inciting feelings of anger, report experiencing more conflict at work. Similarly, longitudinal research shows that high type A individuals report more conflict. Trait anxiety and negative affectivity have also received some attention in relation to the experience of conflict. Again, results indicate that individuals high in these two traits report experiencing more conflict. Locus of control, or the general belief that one’s actions or external forces control outcomes, is also associated with the experience of conflict. These studies, however, are less conclusive: There is some support for the notion that externals report more conflict, but findings also suggest that internals are more reactive to conflict.

Conflict and Its Outcomes

Studies that do not differentiate between the two sources of conflict (task and relationship) consistently report negative outcomes associated with the experience of interpersonal conflict in the workplace. The same is not true of studies that distinguish between sources of conflict. The latter research supports the notion that positive outcomes are associated with moderate amounts of task conflict. For the purpose of organization, the negative personal and organizational outcomes of conflict at work will be presented first, followed by the positive consequences of conflict.

Conflict and Personal Well-being

Negative consequences to personal well-being have been reported as a result, at least in part, of conflict at work. One consequence that has received considerable support is depression. A consistent positive correlation exists between the frequency of conflicts experienced at work and depressive symptoms. Negative affective reactions, including anger, annoyance, and frustration, have also been repeatedly associated with conflict. These findings may have serious implications given the role that negative emotions play in human immune function and the production of cortisol.

Somatic complaints, or self-reported physical symptoms, have also been associated with interpersonal conflict at work. In these studies, employees who reported more conflict also reported experiencing more somatic symptoms. Furthermore, burnout and life dissatisfaction have been shown to positively correlate with the experience of organizational conflict.

Conflict and Organizational Outcomes

The literature on conflict emergence suggests that conflict can have detrimental consequences on organizational effectiveness. For example, it has been shown that employees who perceive more conflict are less satisfied with their jobs. These findings were consistent for both relationship and task conflict when satisfaction with the group was the criterion of interest.

Conflict can also affect organizational functioning through turnover and counter productivity. In fact, turnover intentions are reported to be higher for employees who experience more conflict. Given that turnover intentions are a good indicator of actual turnover, conflict can be said to have bottom-line cost implications for organizations. Counterproductive behaviors, or behaviors aimed at hurting the organization or the individuals who are a part of it, are the focus of much research in the occupational stress literature. Interestingly, self-report and cross-source data support a positive correlation between the frequency of conflict at work and counterproductive work behaviors. It is estimated that the cost of counterproductive behaviors, including theft, lost productivity, and aggression, may be as much as $200 billion per year.

Performance can also suffer because of conflict in organizations. These findings are particularly true for the occurrence of relationship conflict, and they are more complex when the conflict is task related. As a result, recent literature has classified relationship conflict as detrimental to group performance, whereas task conflict is considered beneficial to organizational functioning.

Conflict and Its Benefits

Although recent meta-analytic work has questioned whether task conflict results in positive outcomes, several studies suggest that it does. This is particularly true for groups with nonroutine tasks in which a moderate amount of task conflict has been shown to improve performance. Decision quality has also received attention in the conflict literature and may be treated as an indicator of group performance. Task conflict relates to better decisions and decision quality. Furthermore, task conflict is associated with the conception of ideas, effective use of resources, and task completion. Nevertheless, maximizing the positive outcomes of conflict is not as simple as increasing task conflict while eliminating relationship conflict because the two are positively correlated. Instead, organizations must develop effective conflict management systems to benefit from task conflict.

Conflict and Stress

In recent years, occupational stress researchers have turned their attention to less widely studied stressors, such as interpersonal conflict at work. From this body of research, it is possible to conclude that interpersonal conflicts are a leading source of stress for employees across age-groups, cultures, and industries. Furthermore, studies have shown that employees perceive conflict at work to be more vexing than traditionally studied stressors, such as role conflict and ambiguity. Consequently, Paul E. Spector and his colleagues proposed a model of interpersonal conflict (based on an occupational stress perspective) in which conflict is treated as a stressor that may result in a variety of behavioral, physiological, and psychological strains.

Conclusion

Given the impact that conflict at work can have on organizational effectiveness and personal well-being, it is not surprising that it remains an important construct in organizational research. Recent work has proposed a comprehensive framework for understanding the definitional components of conflict. This model reinforces the traditionally accepted differentiation between task and relationship conflict while also proposing affective, behavioral, and cognitive elements. Although this construct has been the center of empirical attention for decades, there are still many promising directions for future research.

References:

  1. Amason, A. C. (1996). Distinguishing the effects of functional and dysfunctional conflict on strategic decision making: Resolving a paradox for top management teams. Academy of Management Journal, 39, 123-148.
  2. Barki, H., & Hartwick, J. (2004). Conceptualizing the construct of interpersonal conflict. International Journal of Conflict Management, 15(3), 216-244.
  3. Jehn, K. A. (1995). A multimethod examination of the benefits and detriments of intragroup conflict. Administrative Science Quarterly, 40, 256-282.
  4. Pinkley, R. L. (1990). Dimensions of conflict frame: Disputant interpretations of conflict. Journal of Applied Psychology, 75, 117-126.
  5. Spector, P. E., & Bruk-Lee, V. (Forthcoming). Conflict, health and well-being. In C. K. W. De Dreu & M. J. Gelfand (Eds.), The psychology of conflict and conflict management in organizations. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  6. Wall, J. A., Jr., & Callister, R. R. (1995). Conflict and its management. Journal of Management, 21, 515-558.

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