I’m sure during the course of our working lives we’ve all had colleagues that we generally didn’t get on with all that well. Some of them may have irked you so much that this ambivalence grew into something much more hostile.
When we think of those kind of scenarios, we generally think of them in negative terms. This is especially so when the modern workplace seems to be so strongly built around the ethos of collaboration and sharing of knowledge with our colleagues. You’d think that in such an environment it’s hard to forge a coherent bond between teammates if they can’t stand each other, right?
I’m sure in an ideal world we’d all get along with our colleagues and work life would be wonderful. Alas, we don’t live in an ideal world, and in reality conflict and disagreement is probably a quite natural part of our working lives. Indeed, a recent study suggests that a bit of friction between employees can actually be a positive thing.
When conflict is good
The study set out to explore the impact conflict had on our ability to work together as a team, and whether different levels of conflict mattered more than others. For the purposes of the study, the researchers outlined various levels of conflict. Mild conflict for instance, would allow colleagues to discuss different opinions amiably, whereas intense conflict would see those same discussions become incredibly heated.
The theory the researchers were testing was that the more intense conflicts would have a severe impact upon team cohesion, whereas the milder kind would not.
“Consider the example of two employees engaged in a task conflict over the name of a new product,” the research team explain. “A mild expression of that conflict would include the colleagues sharing incongruent opinions, listening to the other’s perspective, and rebutting as needed. In contrast, an intense expression would involve more forcefully stated arguments for one’s position, less listening to the alternative perspectives, and each side repeating his or her own position several times.”
About the research
The study involved several hundred employees from a large healthcare company. Each participant was instructed to fill in a short survey that was designed to measure their views on conflict at work and how this conflict influences both their emotions and ability to learn. They also wanted to find out whether conflicts would traditionally arise when teams had employees from diverse roles in them rather than more homogenous ones.
The researchers then followed up with each participant two months later to try and gauge their levels of job satisfaction and employee engagement.
So what did the results show? Well, it turned out that the mild kind of conflict was actually beneficial to the team, with employees generally learning more from such encounters, which would then turn into greater energy levels, higher job satisfaction and better employee engagement.
The conflict would also provide some great lessons on how to deal with such conflicts in future, with participants revealing that they felt better equipped to manage conflicts between employees from diverse parts of the organisation. So it sounds like a bit of conflict is actually, alright, just so long as it’s the right kind.
“Conflict is often considered a ‘dirty word’ in organizations, but managers can help people to focus on the informational benefits and positive affective outcomes of mild task conflict,” the researchers conclude. “Furthermore, if managers can help employees acquire information from conflicts, positive active emotions and resultant job satisfaction can ensue.”