Who Leads Diverse Teams to Less (More) Conflict?

Topic: Conflict, Diversity, Teams
Publication: Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes (JAN 2011)
Article: When team members’ values differ: The moderating role of team leadership
Authors: K.J. Klein, A.P., Knight, J.C. Ziegert, B.C., Lim, and J.L., Saltz
Reviewed By: Benjamin Granger

The necessity of team-based work coupled with an increasingly diverse workforce makes team-based conflict not only possible, but likely.  A key question is what happens in teams when team members differ in their fundamental values.  Since individuals’ values shape their behaviors and beliefs about how others should behave (at work), value diversity among team members can be a bomb just waiting to explode. 

In theory, if team members hold very different beliefs and expectations about how they and others should behave, team conflict is likely to arise making vital team processes such as decision making and collaboration very difficult.  Ultimately, this can damage a team’s performance.  However, as Klein et al. (2011) find, the leadership style of team leaders plays an important role in determining how value diversity impacts team conflict.  More specifically, leaders with a task-focused leadership style (focus on defining roles and tasks and maintaining formal work standards) restrict the expression of team members’ values that can potentially cause team conflict while leaders with a person-focused leadership style (focus on expressing concern for each team member) exacerbate this problem.

In their study, teams high in value diversity (e.g., team members differ in their views about work ethic) experienced more conflict when leaders did not use a task-focused leadership style. 

Team member value diversity actually led to less conflict in teams with highly task-focused leaders.  Alternatively, teams high in value diversity experienced more conflict for leaders with person-focused leadership styles, but less conflict for leaders without person-focused styles.

As for the implications of this study, it’s important to first acknowledge that value diversity in teams is inevitable in many work environments.  The good news is that task-focused leaders prevent conflict in value diverse teams. However, leaders who are not heavily task-focused or who use a person-focused style of leadership may actually increase team-based conflict in these circumstances.  While a person-focused leadership style can certainly have a positive impact on certain team processes, leaders should be trained to use a task-focused leadership style when value diversity is prevalent or likely.  Additionally, naturally task-focused leaders may be hand-picked for such roles to promote productivity and prevent destructive conflict among team members.

Klein, K.J., Knight, A.P., Ziegert, J.C., Lim, B.C., & Saltz, J.L. (2011). When team members’ values differ: The moderating role of team leadership. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 114, 25-36.