Conflict happens in all workplaces. That’s why we talk about managing conflict instead of preventing it. Traditionally, research has explored how individuals or small teams deal with conflict. New research (Gelfand et al., 2012) has shown that entire organizations have conflict cultures. This is when people who work together share a common style toward dealing with conflict.
In a study of close to 100 bank branches, the authors found three distinct conflict culture styles: Dominating, collaborating, and avoiding. In a dominating culture, employees are not afraid to confront each other and engage in heated debate. They believe that this is the best way to solve disputes. In a collaborating culture, employees take a proactive approach toward friendly negotiation and problem solving. In an avoidant culture, employees believe that they should not engage in conflict, and they will do anything possible to avoid it. Employees may even sensor their true thoughts in order to avoid expressions that lead to conflict.
HOW CONFLICT CULTURE ARE FORMED
So how are conflict cultures formed? The authors discuss two possible explanations. For the most part, the study found that specific styles favored by organizational leaders match the conflict styles used in their organizations. In other words, the way that leaders handle disputes with employees may be influencing the way that the entire organization handles disputes. On the other hand, it is possible that employees form conflict cultures. This happens when organizations attract, select, and retain a homogenous group of employees (Schneider, 1987) who probably share similar ideals concerning conflict management.
Which conflict style is best? The authors found key evidence that will help answer this question. They found that a collaborative conflict style is related to positive outcomes, such as organizational viability and low employee burnout rates. The dominating style is related to lower levels of group cohesion and worse customer service. Finally, an avoidant style was related to lower levels of creativity.
PRACTICAL IMPLICATIONS FOR ORGANIZATIONS
This study is important because it informs us that conflict management is not merely something two individuals engage in, based on their specific personalities. Conflict management is something we all do together, and when we all do it together, we tend to do it the same way. The style that we collectively adopt for managing our disputes leads to actual organizational outcomes. Finally, we should not underestimate the role of the leader in influencing the operative conflict style.
Gelfand, M.J., Leslie, L.M., Keller, K., & de Dreu, C. (2012). Conflict cultures in organizations: How leaders shape conflict cultures and their organizational-level consequences. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97(6), 1131-1147.