The Secret Recipe for Good Workplace Conflict

Topic(s): conflict, job satisfaction, leadership
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology
Article: Can Conflict Be Energizing? A Study of Task Conflict, Positive Emotions, and Job Satisfaction
Authors: G. Todorova, J.B. Bear, and L.R. Weingart
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.

TYPES OF WORKPLACE CONFLICT

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.

 

HOW MILD WORKPLACE CONFLICT LEADS TO INFORMATION

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.

 

CONTEXT MATTERS

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.

 

GOOD WORKPLACE CONFLICT

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.