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Can Conflict Ever be Productive?

By Nirmalya Kumar

My early academic research focused on power, trust, and conflict in organizations. Last week’s blog was inspired by the research on power, and this week, the focus in on conflict in organizations.

Conflict emerges when one party perceives its goals, values or opinions are being thwarted by an interdependent (team member or colleague in organizations, though conflict can also be across organizations with suppliers and dealers) counter party. Historically, researchers believed conflict had negative consequences, and therefore, should be avoided in organizations.

As research on conflict became more elaborate, a distinction was drawn between:

  • Relationship conflict about people, values, interpersonal styles, and so on.
  • Task conflict about distribution of resources, procedures, and best approaches to a task.

Much of the research examined the effects of these two types of conflict on team performance and team member satisfaction.

Relationship conflict was considered to have only negative effects on both team performance and team member satisfaction. It distracted members and produced tension in them. In contrast, task conflict, it was argued, at low levels would be positive for team performance on non-routine tasks as it helps members confront issues, forces them to take different perspectives, and be creative. In its absence, teams may not realize inefficiencies exist. For routine tasks, task conflict is negative as it just gets in the way of implementing known processes.

These conclusions were the received wisdom in mainstream organizational behaviour text books. And, in this view, managers should become “orchestrators” of conflict on the right issues between the right people at the right times operating under the right ground rules. Some famous coaches were famously known to generate some conflict among their team members in the hope of higher team performance. My PhD advisor, Lou Stern, taught his students that conflict can lead to growth, creativity and innovation.

While a good story, the results from recent meta-analysis (summarizes known research on topic) failed to support the above conclusions. Instead, research findings on conflict are now more nuanced as the following:

  • Relationship conflict is more destructive than task conflict for team member satisfaction.
  • Overall, relationship and task conflict are equally destructive for team performance.
  • Task conflict is less detrimental (though still negative) to team performance for routine tasks as it interferes less. In complex tasks, task conflict dilutes much needed valuable cognitive resources.
  • Task conflict is less detrimental (though still negative) for team performance when there is high trust between team members.

So, we can now conclude that there “MAY” be some positive effects of task conflict if:

  • It is of moderate intensity
  • Team members come apriori with suboptimal, rather than optimal, decision alternatives
  • Team climate is high on trust and psychological safety
  • Any positive effects that emerge are limited to innovation and decision quality

Regardless of its negative effects, conflict will occur in organizations. In the presence of conflict, a win-win approach (constructive controversy, integrative negotiation) which open mindedly debates issues, tries to learn and incorporate other perspectives, and exchange arguments and positions to mutual benefit is preferable to pursuing win-lose approach or impasse. However, even these integrative solutions ignore the following three costs:

  • They take longer, with studies indicating from 30% more time to twice as much time, in contrast to reaching a compromise. Time is money under many circumstances.
  • It may lead to “parasitic integration” where two or more people reach a “pareto – superior” decision that makes them all better off but levies costs on other stakeholders.
  • Task related and relationship conflict leads to lower team member satisfaction. The stress it creates is related to psychosomatic complaints and feelings of burnout. Any higher team performance effects must compensate for this downside.

Given these findings, it is best to avoid conflict as managing it would tax the interpersonal and cognitive skills of even the best orchestrators. And, when it does appear, integrative solutions should be sought even if they do have some costs because they are superior to the alternative of having conflict poorly managed in organizations.

Furthermore, often the conflict in organizations is a result of competition spinning out of control. It is therefore important to distinguish between the two. Competition is when two parties seek to “win” without impeding the other. Think of 100 metres, where the individuals run in designated lanes, or golf. The trophy is held by a third party. Conflict is where to “win”, the party must overcome the counter party, who stands in the way. Most team sports and boxing fall within this realm. Unlike conflict, competition in organizations has many positive benefits, provided we don’t start seeing the competing party as an enemy to be overcome.

Competition in organizations must also not obstruct collaboration, which is joint striving by parties towards a common goal. Much of the incentive system design in organizations is focussed on how to balance the need for individual performance via some level of competition between colleagues (e.g., forced ranking performance evaluation systems) versus the necessity for collaboration between these same individuals.

Nirmalya Kumar is Visiting Professor of Marketing at London Business School & Distinguished Fellow, Emerging Markets Institute at INSEAD. As an author, Nirmalya has written six books, the latest being Brand Breakout: How Emerging Market Brands Will Go Global. Having ranked on the Thinkers50 every 2 years since 2011, he was also awarded the Global Village Award for contributing the most to the business community’s understanding of globalisation and the new frontiers established by emerging markets.

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