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Understanding Conflict

We’ve all experienced it: a team that just can’t get anything done. Team members disagree constantly, they argue, things get personal. Lots of meetings, endless disagreement, hurt feelings and no results. Conflict is a fact of life. Here’s the thing about conflict: it’s not always bad. In fact, the right type and amount of conflict actually improves performance.

To understand why, we need to understand the difference between two types of conflict. Cognitive conflict, sometimes called task conflict, focuses on the work. This type of conflict stems from disagreements that are directly related to the task at hand. “Our new product should be blue, not red.” “We’re better off investing in training than in new equipment.”

Cognitive conflict improves performance, but only if two conditions exist. First, there can’t be too much conflict. Up to a point, cognitive conflict improves performance. Beyond that point, the team spends too much time resolving conflict and performance suffers. Second, the team must work together to capitalize on the conflict. Benefiting from cognitive conflict requires two things: the ability to recognize the source and consequences of the conflict and productive approaches for managing conflict, which we’ll cover next month.

Affective conflict, or relationship conflict, focuses on interpersonal issues and emotions. “You marketing people are all alike, you don’t understand engineering.” “You engineers are just geeks with no understanding of what the market wants.”

Affective conflict hurts performance. It is particularly perilous to teams. Affective conflict often brings about destructive behaviors, such as bullying, which brings about more affective conflict, creating a destructive cycle of dysfunction that can destroy a team.

Conflict comes from diversity. Different types of diversity bring about different types of conflict and therefore have different impacts on performance. Demographic diversity is what most people think about when they hear the word “diversity” – explicit differences in group memberships such as ethnicity, race, age and social group. Informational or knowledge diversity comes from differences in experiences, education and expertise. Value diversity occurs when team members differ in their perceptions of what the team’s real task, goal or mission should be.

Informational diversity improves performance because it has a positive impact on cognitive conflict, but has no impact on affective conflict. Informational diversity also positively impacts team commitment, but has no meaningful influence on satisfaction.

Demographic diversity increases affective conflict, but not cognitive conflict. Overall, this leads to a small, almost negligible, negative impact on performance. Interestingly, demographic diversity’s impact on satisfaction and commitment is not clear. One reason for this is that it’s difficult to untangle the different types of diversity. For example, differences in age are likely to lead to differences in knowledge and experiences (informational diversity). The informational diversity has a positive impact on performance; higher performance may lead to higher levels of satisfaction and commitment.

Value diversity is all bad. It hurts performance, efficiency, satisfaction and commitment. High value diversity even mutes the benefits of informational diversity. If a team can’t even agree on what the team’s tasks or goals should be, there’s little hope for strong performance. Because of this, it’s worthwhile to spend time coming to agreement on tasks and goals before diving into the “real” work.

Highly diverse groups often have issues. Even when performance benefits from informational diversity, members find the experience frustrating and dissatisfying.

The high level of diversity often leads to categorizing members into different groups, which leads to hostility or animosity, usually resulting in affective conflict. The bottom line is that managing team diversity is tricky. Fortunately, there are things that can help.

Trust can be an antidote to affective conflict. It works this way: if I don’t trust you, I tend to attribute any conflict that we have to nefarious motives. However, if I trust you, I’m more likely to view conflict as being an honest disagreement resulting from a true desire to do a good job. The way I view your motives influences the way I’ll deal with the conflict. This is yet another reason why building an environment of trust is so beneficial to organizations.

Understanding different approaches to conflict management also helps in managing diversity. FBN


The W.A. Franke College of Business at Northern Arizona University is home to more than 2,800 undergraduate and master’s students. The College’s faculty and staff are dedicated to the success of its students and the economic development of the region. For more information on The W.A. Franke College of Business, please see:



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