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Is conflict crucial in the workplace?

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Is conflict crucial in the workplace?

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Within the social business movement there is obviously a strong sense that collaboration is a good thing and beneficial to workplace productivity.  It should hopefully go without saying that organizations shouldn’t collaborate for the sake of collaborating, but when they do choose to go down that path, having a coherent team is important.

Disagreements and conflict are quite probably a fundamental part of any collective endeavour, so it’s important to understand and mitigate the risks of conflict to ensure that the collaboration works well.  A recent study however suggests that conflict within a team is actually rather beneficial.

The research looked in particular at the temposity of the conflict, and whether varying degrees of conflict had varying impacts upon the collaborative potential of the group.  The research distinguished mild conflict, whereby team members simply discuss various options, from intense confict, where team members have more heated clashes around their ideas.

The hypothesis was that the latter, intense conflicts, would entrench opinions and cause collaboration to break down much more than in milder conflict scenarios.

“Consider the example of two employees engaged in a task conflict over the name of a new product,” they write in the Journal of Applied Psychology“A mild expression of that conflict would include the colleagues sharing incongruent opinions, listening to the other’s perspective, and rebutting as needed. In contrast, an intense expression would involve more forcefully stated arguments for one’s position, less listening to the alternative perspectives, and each side repeating his or her own position several times.”

The researchers studied over 230 employees from a healthcare organization.  They were asked to complete a survey designed to gauge their opinions on task conflict, and how they affect their emotions and learning.  They also measured whether conflicts emerged more amongst people from diverse roles vs those from similar ones.

This was followed up two months later with another survey that was designed to measure the job satisfaction and engagement of employees.

The results showed that people would actually learn more from situations where a mild level of conflict was present.  This would then translate into higher energy levels, higher employee engagement and greater job satisfaction.

What’s more, the extra insight gained would also yield more positive reactions when the conflict occured between people from diverse roles.  All of which paints a positive picture of the potential for conflict to be a positive thing amongst enterprise level collaboration.

“Conflict is often considered a ‘dirty word’ in organizations, but managers can help people to focus on the informational benefits and positive affective outcomes of mild task conflict,” the researchers state. “Furthermore, if managers can help employees acquire information from conflicts, positive active emotions and resultant job satisfaction can ensue.”

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