How Rude! Passive Leadership May Encourage Workplace Incivility and Employee Withdrawal

Publication: Journal of Organizational Behavior
Article: The effects of passive leadership on workplace incivility
Reviewed by: Kayla Weaver


Workplace incivility, the use of rude or discourteous behaviors in the workplace, is a growing organizational problem that leads to negative outcomes for both employees and employers. Examples of workplace incivility include talking negatively about others, checking emails during work meetings, and failing to acknowledge another’s presence in the workplace. Experiencing workplace incivility can have lasting effects on employees, such as lowered creativity, job satisfaction, and commitment, as well as increased job turnover and burnout.

Previous research on incivility has identified the negative outcomes associated with witnessing or experiencing rude or discourteous behaviors while at work. However, it is also important to understand why incivility occurs, and the workplace conditions that may lead to employees engaging in this behavior.



One reason workplace incivility is so problematic, is that it often occurs in a behavioral spiral. If employees witnesses or experience incivility and believe that it was done on purpose, they are more likely to retaliate with an uncivil response. An individual who experiences incivility may direct their retaliation toward the perpetrator, or even worse, an innocent bystander. Previous research has shown that 94% of employees who have experienced incivility from others have retaliated with similar uncivil behaviors (Porath & Pearson, 2010). This spiral of incivility can spread throughout the organization and can be very destructive if it is not addressed or corrected.



Leaders that utilize a passive leadership style tend to be “hands-off” and fail to take action to address actual or potential problems. A passive leader may delay decision-making, ignore workplace problems, or display an apathetic attitude. Because passive leaders are not proactive problem solvers, this leadership style may allow employees to engage in workplace incivility without consequences.

A recent study (Harold & Holtz, 2015) examined 122 employee-supervisor dyads and 105 coworker dyads to examine how the supervisor’s use of passive leadership affected the incivility experienced and demonstrated by employees. The results of the study showed that passive leadership was positively related to incivility. In other words, when the leader utilized a passive leadership style, employees were more likely to report experiencing incivility and engaging in uncivil behaviors.

Researchers also examined how passive leadership affected employees’ behavior. The results from the study show that passive leadership was related to increased reports of incivility by coworkers, which in turn was related to employees themselves engaging in workplace incivility. Taken together, employees who work for passive leaders are not only more likely to experience workplace incivility from others, but are also more likely to engage in uncivil behavior themselves.



Workplace incivility can result in more negative work-related behavior and attitudes exhibited by employees. In addition, passive leadership may exacerbate these negative effects. Employees who experienced high levels of workplace incivility and worked for a passive leader were more likely to engage in withdrawal behaviors such as showing up late to work and taking excessive breaks. Taken together, the results from the study show how passive leadership can not only allow workplace incivility to occur, but can also affect employees’ own uncivil and withdrawal behavior.



Uncivil workplace behaviors are low intensity, and as such may not be acknowledged by leaders. However, the current research highlights the serious consequences that occur when leaders react passively to uncivil behavior (e.g., eye rolling, addressing someone in unprofessional terms, etc.). Increased workplace incivility and employee withdrawal behavior may occur.

The authors suggest that organizational leaders are responsible for setting behavioral standards and that “civil behavior should start with the leader.” Therefore, organizations may be inclined to screen out managerial candidates who report a passive leadership style, or may invest in training their current leaders to recognize uncivil behavior.

In addition, organizations may benefit from implementing zero-tolerance incivility policies. By communicating to employees that workplace incivility is against company policy and will result in serious penalties, organizations can create a climate that is supportive rather than uncivil, which ultimately will improve the working conditions for all employees.

How to Make Meetings Productive: The Role of Employee Participation

Publication: Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research
Article: Participate or Else! The Effect of Participation in Decision Making in Meetings Relates to Employee Engagement
Reviewed by: Madeleine Holtz


We wouldn’t think that the purpose of meetings is to encourage employee participation. After all, meetings are held for a variety of specific work-related reasons. But the results of these meetings can vary incredibly. Productive meetings can include the successful collaboration of ideas, while unproductive meetings can result in decreased morale in employees. How can we do better? New research (Yoerger, Crowe, & Allen, 2015) investigated the relationship between participation in decision-making, or PDM, and employee engagement in the context of meetings.

PDM is defined as the amount of freedom that supervisors allow their employees to have in the process of decision-making. Meetings are an easy place for employees to address change in the workplace, though it does not mean they will take advantage of this opportunity and speak up. Not only is PDM a potential outcome of successful meetings, but this process can lead to a sense of belonging within the organization as well as job satisfaction. All of these factors can lead to increased employee engagement, or the extent that employees feel enthusiastic about their jobs.



So if employee participation is important to make meetings productive, how can supervisors make sure that employees will speak up? Perceived supervisor support (or the extent to which an employee feels like their supervisor supports them in their work) can have an effect on employees’ likelihood of speaking up at meetings. Showing employees that they are supported and that their contributions to the organization are valued will demonstrate to them that their roles carry much importance. Why wouldn’t employees want to feel this way? And why wouldn’t you want your employees to feel this way? Employees who feel supported by their supervisor and their organization will also feel the need to reciprocate.

Another factor that helps employees participate and feel engaged in their work is the frequency of meetings. If meetings are held frequently, employees may not feel that their input will be considered, or they may put off their desire to speak up because they know there will be more opportunities to speak up later. If meetings are more sporadic, then employees may feel that this is one of the few times they will have an opportunity to provide input. In some companies, meetings may be the only times that employees have the chance to interact with supervisors or management, which can also significantly affect the results of these meetings.



So the next time you attend or facilitate a meeting, think about the outcomes that could result from the meeting beyond the content itself. It could have a profound effect on your organization, and all of its employees. By supporting employees on a day-to-day basis and by holding less frequent meetings, employees may be more likely to speak up and participate in meetings, and eventually feel more engaged in their work.

Servant Leadership Benefits Performance through Serving Culture

Publication: Academy of Management Journal
Article: Servant Leadership and Serving Culture: Influence on Individual and Unit Performance
Reviewed by: Winnie Jiang


The concept of servant leadership is becoming increasingly popular, especially in the service industry. Multiple studies have found that servant leadership is positively related to individual and organizational outcomes such as performance and organizational citizenship behavior, which is when employees go beyond their formal job requirements to help the organization. However, curious people may still wonder how servant leadership produces these positive outcomes. The lack of understanding of how servant leadership leads to these positive effects can make it difficult for organizations to implement this leadership practice and to fully enjoy its benefits. New research (Liden, Wayne, Liao, & Meuser, 2014) has found that servant leadership leads to favorable individual and organizational outcomes through fostering a serving culture and enhancing employees’ sense of identification with their organization.



Servant leadership is the leadership style that emphasizes a leader’s role as a “servant” first and a “leader” second. In other words, servant leadership promotes the philosophy of leading by serving. Servant leaders place their followers’ needs ahead of their own needs and consider it a priority to support followers in achieving their full potential. A servant leader also genuinely cares for followers and encourages followers to support each other.

Serving culture in this study refers to a situation where group members share the expectation of serving or helping others. In a team with a serving culture, every member treats helping others as a priority.

Employees’ identification with an organization is the extent to which the employees view themselves as part of the organization and the extent to which they see the organization they work for as an important part of their life.



This study finds that servant leadership demonstrated by store managers is positively related to a serving culture in their stores. The authors argue that this is likely because employees model their managers’ behavior and become helpful and supportive themselves. The serving culture is subsequently found to predict better store performance as well as better job performance, enhanced creativity, higher customer service quality, and lower turnover intention. Serving culture is also found to predict a higher level of employees’ identification with their stores, which has a positive effect on many of the benefits mentioned above as well.



The major takeaway from this article is that leaders (especially those in the service sector) might benefit from learning to become servant leaders and engage in servant leadership practices such as emotionally supporting their followers. Doing this will foster a serving culture in the organization and enhance employees’ identification with the organization. This can generate favorable outcomes for individuals and the organization as a whole. Organizations in the service industry may consider adding servant leadership to their executive or leadership development programs. Furthermore, because serving culture is the critical factor that produces the positive outcomes, in addition to developing servant leaders, organizations can promote serving culture through other channels such as encouraging voluntary activities and community service.

Lack of Supervisor Justice Leads to Team Cohesiveness

Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology
Article: Misery Loves Company: Team Dissonance and the Influence of
Reviewed by: Ben Sher


Supervisor justice sounds like a good thing, and it is. This term refers to leaders who treat their employees fairly, and when speaking specifically about interpersonal justice, it means that they treat their employees with dignity and respect. Past research has highlighted the positive outcomes that occur when supervisor justice is at a high level, for example, employees will be more committed to the organization. However, a new study (Stoverink, Umphress, Gardner, & Miner, 2014) found the opposite. When supervisor justice is perceived to be lacking, there could be a positive benefit for employees who work on teams.



I-O psychologists study many kinds of organizational justice, but the current study focused on interpersonal justice that comes from a supervisor. For example, does the supervisor speak respectfully and professionally to employees, or does the supervisor intimidate, scream, and harass? Specifically, the researchers investigated the climate of supervisor interpersonal justice. When researchers talk about a climate, they simply mean that they are evaluating a combination of all the employees’ individual perceptions, and in this case, they are evaluating joint perceptions of whether or not leadership is being fair to them. In this sense, a single workplace can be said to have a high amount of supervisor interpersonal justice, or a low amount.



As you might expect, when a group of employees believe that their leaders are not treating them fairly, negative outcomes typically occur. The unique contribution of this study is that it has discovered an unintended positive outcome. When supervisor justice was perceived to be low (think screaming bosses), the employees have a greater sense of group cohesiveness. In other words, they band together in the face of adversity.



The authors explained that when employees have to deal with a disrespectful supervisor, they experience dissonance. Dissonance refers to an uncomfortable feeling that people get when things don’t go as expected. For example, imagine that you have completed a project adequately and you expect to be praised by your supervisor. If instead the supervisor yells at you and calls you a disrespectful name, the unexpected outcome makes you feel uncomfortable. You then need to spend energy focusing your thoughts on why your supervisor would do something like that. Interestingly, this rationalization process is best done along with other people who are experiencing the same problem. Trying to figure out why your boss yelled at you will lead you to share experiences, thoughts, and feelings with people who have also been yelled at by the same boss. Ultimately, this sharing of experience among team members leads to stronger group cohesion.



The authors note that these findings do not provide carte blanche for leaders to become abusive. Besides for the obvious ethical and humanitarian reasons against doing so, the authors note that mostly bad organizational outcomes will occur in response. However, this article does provide a sort of silver lining for those employees currently exposed to unjust or abusive leadership. The very same mechanism that may make their jobs more difficult may also enhance their experience of being on a team. More cohesive teams may perform better, leading to long-term positive outcomes for employees. As far as advice for employees dealing with adversity, such as an abusive boss, this article discusses how seeking out others who are experiencing the same problem can help.

Abusive Supervision may have Roots in Childhood

Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology
Article: Roots Run Deep: Investigating Psychological Mechanisms Between History of Family Aggression and Abusive Supervision
Reviewed by: Amber Davidson


Supervisor anger is a common workplace problem. This can include a supervisor who is angered too easily or a situation when the supervisor’s anger is disproportional to the situation at hand. This study explores the true reasons behind this anger, hypothesizing that a history of family aggression is the root of angry reactions and abusive supervision.



Parents are the main role-models for children when they are young and children have a tendency to adopt the same coping techniques and reactions that they see their parents using. When a child grows up seeing an excess of family aggression, there are conscious and unconscious consequences. Exposure to aggression shows a child that this is acceptable behavior and this carries over into adult life, potentially creating an abusive supervisor. Seeing aggressive behavior lead to a successful outcome will also solidify the notion that aggression and abusive behavior will get the desired action or reaction. This ultimately means that children who grow up watching family aggression have the potential to become abusive supervisors for the simple reason that they were taught that aggression brings about desired results.



The study finds considerable evidence showing that family aggression does in fact increase the chances of abusive behavior in the workplace. This effect goes beyond the anger that is caused by situational factors, organizational mistreatment, demographical variables, or subordinates’ personality. The social learning theory was supported, meaning children who grow up seeing, and surrounded by, family aggression learn that abusive behaviors will produce the outcome they desire.



The authors also found that rumination, or the tendency to focus and dwell on negative past events, can make things worse. The association between abusive family life and abusive supervision was stronger when these supervisors engaged in more rumination. By focusing on the unpleasant aspects of growing up amidst family aggression and turmoil, supervisors became more likely to think hostile thoughts and experience hostile feelings. This led ruminating supervisors to act more hostile in the workplace.



The importance of this study is that it helps identify the root cause of abusive behavior in the workplace. This is important because abusive supervisors can have strong negative impacts on employees and the company as a whole. Two steps can be taken to decrease the negative outcomes of abusive supervision. The first is to train abusive supervisors through cognitive-behavioral coaching. This may include emotional intelligence training, in order to help supervisors gain control of the angry behavior. Training can also help limit rumination for supervisors, which may help decrease the occurrence of angry thoughts and feelings, even when supervisors are predisposed to have them. The second step that organizations can take is to not let supervisors with abusive potential into the organization in the first place. This can be done by altering the recruitment and selection process to help identify those supervisors who are most likely to lead employees in a positive manner, and not those who are reduced to abusive supervision.

How Leadership Styles and Fairness Can Help Increase Job Performance


Stress is an inevitable part of working life within any organization. Every employee encounters different types of stressful situations, which ultimately shape our attitudes towards, and perceptions of, the organization we work for. The authors of “It’s Not Fair….Or Is It? The Role Of Justice And Leadership In Explaining Work Stressor-Job Performance Relationships” proposed that people encounter two types of stress in the workplace, which includes challenge stressors and hindrance stressors.



Challenge stressors consist of stress related to workload, the levels of complexity of a job and time constraints. These stresses are common in most jobs, and can be considered to be a normal part of any work environment. Employees feel that even though Challenge stressors can be burdensome, the employee will ultimately receive some sort of “reward.”

Hindrance stressors consist of stress related to ambiguity within the workplace, which involves roles and responsibilities not being clearly defined. It is also related to office politics and unnecessary red tape within the organization. In essence, Hindrance stressors add unnecessary burden on an employee without any perceived benefit.

The researchers acknowledged that both forms of stress can cause an employee mental fatigue and affect job performance. But employees generally have a better acceptance of Challenge stressors because, in the long term, this type of stress can be beneficial for developing our ability to cope with stressful work environments. The study found that different leadership styles within an organization can also have an impact on an employee’s stress level.



Transactional Leadership focuses on a transactional exchange between the organization’s leader and its employees. Generally, leadership will provide employees with specific deadlines, goals and objectives to complete. Employees can usually expect a system of rewards or punishment in regards to completion of their tasks under specified criteria.

Transformational Leadership focuses communicating the vision, mission and direction of the company to those within the organization. It can also include getting the “buy in” from employees regarding the direction of the organization and allowing them to have an invested stake in the company. In short, it’s effective for empowering employees.



The types of stress and leadership we encounter within the workplace can shape whether we perceive the actions of the organization’s leadership as being fair or not. This concept of fairness is described as Organizational Justice.

In other words, do we feel that we are being properly compensated for the work stress we endure? If we do not feel that the stress we encounter is “just,” then it is bound to negatively impact our overall job performance. As a result, if an employee feels the stress is unwarranted, they will take steps to avoid unnecessary mental fatigue.



To examine the connection between leadership styles, fairness and job performance, researchers performed a study consisting of 339 employees and 88 supervisors.

Employees were asked about their attitudes and beliefs regarding their supervisors and job. They were measured on several items that focused on challenge, hindrance stressors and organizational justice. Questions regarding challenge stressors focused on workload, time constraints and complexity of projects. Hindrance stressors included items such as red tape, contradictory instructions, ambiguous responsibilities and office politics. Organizational justice questions focused on promotions, pay and perceptions of procedures used to reach various outcomes.

After three weeks, the supervisors were contacted and asked to rate the job performance for the employees who completed the first survey. Supervisors were asked how the employees faired in regards to completing their tasks, level of involvement with the company, behavior that could be considered “destructive” to the work environment and ability to creatively come up solutions to improve overall performance.



The study led to some interesting findings, which included:

  • Organizational justice (fairness) buffers the impact of Hindrance stressors, largely avoiding negative impacts on job performance.
  • Greater exposure to transactional leadership can indirectly serve as a buffer for negative Hindrance stressors, having less of a negative impact on job performance.
  • Greater exposure to transformational leadership can indirectly impact Challenge stressors’ effect on job performance through improved organizational justice.



Reading this article, I found two major takeaways from the research:

The study found that transactional leadership affects an employee’s view of fairness, which indirectly lessens the negative impact of Hindrance stressors, but does not do the same for Challenge stressors. Basically, transactional leaders provide a clearly defined set of rewards and punishment regarding tasks, which allows employees to know precisely where they stand.

The study also found that transformational leadership affects an employee’s view of fairness, which lessens the stress associated with Challenge stressors, but does not do the same for Hindrance stressors. A transformational leader helps employees take ownership of their work, and the employee, in turn, sees Challenge stressors as opportunities for them to grow within their role and improve the organization. Transformational leaders are not as effective with Hindrance stressors because employees may view them as “out of touch.” They don’t address the bureaucracy, as they are more focused on big picture objectives.

In the end, the article makes a case that transformational and transactional leaders both have their place. This supports previous research suggesting that the best leaders have aspects that are both transactional and transformational. Having a leader that is able to inspire employees with big picture objectives while also providing enough structure to reduce ambiguity provides a sense of balance within an organization. By offering a more balanced work environment, these leaders can help reduce the negative impacts stress has on an organization, which ultimately helps to increase job performance among employees.

Are Defiant Employees Causing their Bosses to be Abusive?


Both managers and employees sometimes act inappropriately in the workplace. For example, managers can excessively yell at, ridicule, or make fun of those working for them. We’ll refer to this as abusive supervision.

Similarly, employees can deliberately break rules and ignore norms, harming the organization they work for in the process. We’ll refer to this as organizational defiance.

Researchers have always believed that abusive supervision and organizational defiance often seem to occur in the same workplaces. But which one is the cause, and which one is the result?



The traditional belief is that abusive supervision leads to organizational defiance. Basically, if the boss treats employees poorly, they ultimately retaliate against the organization.

Although many psychology studies have a hard time determining which is the cause and which is the effect, theory can step in and help shed light on the answer. When employees experience abusive supervision and feel like they’re being taken advantage of, they may feel a need to punish the organization in order to restore balance.

Alternatively, when dealing with abusive supervisors, employees may have to focus so much of their attention on the abuse that they have trouble devoting attention toward controlling their impulses. This can lead to acting in ways that are inappropriate.



In the current study, the authors examined the possibility that, when employees act out, it causes supervisors to become abusive.

When supervisors need to deal with employee misbehavior, they lose some of their own ability to practice self- control. This may lead managers to have reactions that have otherwise been inhibited. Also, in response to employee defiance, managers may feel the need to “save face” or project an aura of authority, which could lead to acting in a more authoritarian or controlling manner.

Finally, sometimes employees who act out may be inadvertently sending cues to their managers, inviting them to join in the same norm-violating behavior.



The current study used an advanced data-collection method to show that organizational defiance by employees causes abusive supervision by managers, which is the reverse of what previous researchers had assumed.

But, like many aspects of human behavior, it’s not quite so simple. The researchers also showed that abusive supervision can sometimes cause employee defiance. This was especially true when the employees did not have a lot of self-control, and when they intended to leave the organization. Under these circumstances, employees who face abusive leadership are unable to refrain from bad behavior, and they have little incentive for doing so, since they plan to leave the company anyway.

The authors also showed that, if abusive supervision and employee defiance are capable of causing each other, a vicious cycle emerges where both negative aspects can feed off of each other and escalate into an unpleasant work environment for everybody.



So how can organizational leaders create a workplace that curbs inappropriate behavior from both managers and employees? The results of this article indicate that simply firing offenders may not be the right answer, since firing abusive managers won’t help if their behavior was caused by defiant employees.

What organizations can do is stress the importance of standards for employee conduct, insisting that abusive management is no excuse to retaliate against the organization. This can help slow the vicious cycle.

Also, employees and managers can be selected specifically for their capacity for self-control. This helps to make sure a bad situation does not escalate, and that both employees and managers can always respond to others in a level-headed manner.

How Well-Connected Leaders Help Foster Creativity

Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology
Article: The benefits from well-connected leaders: Leader social network ties as facilitators of employee radical creativity
Reviewed by: Anjali Banerjee


In recent years organizations have increasingly come to recognize the importance of fostering innovation and creativity. The problem is, how?

New research suggests that the key might be dependent on the size of team leaders’ social networks. By working with leaders who have substantial social networks within the organization, employees are granted access to more resources, ideas, and strategies to utilize in creative ways.



The new study, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, examined 214 employees working in public technology and environmental services. The research focused on the impact of the social networks of the leaders and employees involved, as well as instances of radical creativity.

The study found that it’s important that leaders be connected to the members of their team, but equally important that they be well-connected outside the team as well.

Leaders with expansive connections beyond the scope of the immediate work team provide access to a broader variety of resources, including new perspectives and ideas which the leader can then pass on to their team.



The importance of having a wide social network as a team leader hinges on the value of providing a broad-view strategy for employees. The more people a team leader knows, the more connected they become to Big Picture concepts rather than focusing solely on the current thoughts within a team.

Of course, it’s not enough for the leader to merely make new connections. They also need to focus on sharing the insights and strategies these connections provide. By sharing diverse perspectives, team leaders can help battle the creative stagnancy that often happens with teams over time.

This research suggests that employee social networks can also be instrumental if they serve as liaison to individuals outside the team, especially when their leaders are less integral to the team or are not stepping up to the plate. But the interplay between employee and leader social networks needs to be better explored in the future in order to fully understand the different impacts of each.



The important info organizational leaders can glean from this research is that creativity is fostered by connectivity to others in the organization.

Access to additional outside perspectives help to provide unique resources and ideas that could lead to innovative creative development.

This research also supports the notion of a connected organization wherein ideas are shared freely between leaders in order to stimulate the creativity of the entire company.

Leading Virtual Teams: An Investigation of Leadership and Structural Supports

Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology
Article: Leading Virtual Teams: Hierarchical Leadership, Structural Supports, and Shared Team Leadership
Reviewed by: Andrew Morris


Due to increasingly sophisticated technologies, organizational globalization and flexible work structures, virtual teams are steadily growing in popularity.

By definition, virtual teams are those that work remotely or, even if in a similar vicinity, communicate via largely electronic means. These teams never, or very rarely, have face-to-face meetings.

There are varying degrees of virtuality, which can be increased by distance and culture differences. The researchers behind a new study on Leading Virtual Teams wanted to understand how leadership and structural factors lead to better performance as virtuality increases.



There are two prominent leadership theories in this context that have been shown to positively affect performance– Transformational Leadership and Leader Member Exchange. The researchers argued that Supervisor Career Mentoring also related to various positive outcomes. These three constructs comprised the hierarchal leadership model the researchers set out to investigate.

The study found that as virtuality increased, the impact of hierarchal leadership on team performance decreased, because practicing these forms of leadership proved harder in virtual formats. It was at this point that the researchers formulated their opinion that supplementing virtual team leadership with various structural supports could help enhance overall performance.



The researchers were interested in examining how shared leadership and structural supports might affect the overall performance of virtual teams when hierarchical leadership proved difficult.

Shared leadership is the idea that various members of the team engage in leadership-type behaviors. Although not necessarily the same as the supervisor’s actions, these team members promote behaviors that facilitate cohesion and team process, which are critical for high performance.

Shared leadership has been shown to enhance the cognitive, affective and behavioral functioning of teams. So when trust and cohesion are difficult due to the virtual nature of the team, such shared leadership behaviors can enhance positive team dynamics.



Structural supports are more indirect means of influencing a team. They deal with leadership substitutes through organizational and task structures, and can compensate for (or add value to) different leadership styles/models.

Due to the fact that working in virtual teams can be wrought with uncertainty and constant change, the researchers decided to explore the positive effect that structural support could have when hierarchical leadership falls short within a virtual context.

The structural supports of primary interest included proper rewards, communication and information management, each of which was found to help increase performance as virtuality increased.



The study found that, while leading virtual teams brings with it certain unique challenges, these challenges can be overcome by choosing alternative methods to traditional hierarchical leadership.

In short, management and leaders who want to mitigate their loss of positive influence due to the virtual nature of the team can supplement with various structural supports and encourage shared leadership for best results.

The Secret Recipe for Good Workplace Conflict

Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology
Article: Can Conflict Be Energizing? A Study of Task Conflict, Positive Emotions, and Job Satisfaction
Reviewed by: Ben Sher


The term “Workplace Conflict” sounds ominous. It conjures up images of yelling, screaming, finger pointing and, in rare cases, hunkering down under makeshift table forts and lobbing used Styrofoam cups at rival camps.

But can workplace conflict occasionally be good? New research by Todorova, Bear, and Weingart (2014) has found that, under the right circumstances, frequent workplace conflict can lead to an exchange of valuable information and, eventually, to higher job satisfaction.



Employees who express differing opinions about how work should be done are engaging in “task conflict.”

There are two different ways they can do this. When intense conflict occurs, employees “clash and argue,” and typically spend more time defending their own opinions than listening to the other side. Naturally, this doesn’t often lead to any good outcomes.

But employees can also engage in mild conflict, which is characterized by “debating and expressing.” In this scenario, employees are still arguing, but they are also listening to the other side in an honest attempt to solve the problem. This type of conflict can lead to more positive results.



The current study found that frequent mild task conflict provides employees with new information that will ultimately help them succeed at their jobs. For example, after debating about the best way to file records, a secretary may learn a more efficient way of doing his or her job.

And what happens when people get better at their jobs? The researchers found that they are more likely to feel active, energized, interested and excited. These positive emotions about work lead to higher overall job satisfaction.



The positive effects of frequent mild task conflict are stronger in two different circumstances.

The first is when conflict occurs in an active learning environment, which is when employees experiment, reflect and use feedback in an attempt to discuss results and improve work processes. This learning environment communicates to employees that conflict is meant to be constructive, helping them learn to improve at their jobs. Accordingly, employees respond well and feel good about learning new information.

Secondly, when mild task conflict occurs between people who work in different functions, more novel information is shared and employees respond better. The study found that, when task conflict occurs between people who work in the same job, there is simply not as much new information to be gained.



This article helps leaders understand how to use workplace conflict to the benefit of both their employees and the workplace. Here’s a simple guide to having more productive workplace conflict:

  • Conflict should be task-related and about how to do work, and not interpersonal.
  • Conflict should be kept to mild expressions of debate, and not intense arguing.
  • Conflict works best in a learning environment, which is when employees are actively engaged in discussing and improving work processes.
  • Conflict provides best results when it is between people who have very different organizational functions.