Perspective—A New Look at Conflict Management in Work Groups

Published Online:https://doi.org/10.1287/orsc.2016.1085

Members of work groups are highly interdependent and often share incompatible values, objectives, and opinions. As a result, conflict frequently arises. Given the profound impact of conflict on group effectiveness, scholars have sought to identify strategies that can mitigate its downsides and leverage its upsides. Yet research on conflict management strategies has accumulated inconsistent results. In this Perspectives piece, we argue that these inconsistent findings can be resolved if scholars take a more expansive view of the consequences of conflict management strategies: whereas existing research considers how individual strategies influence a single group conflict type (relational, status, process, or task), we consider the impact of individual strategies on all four conflict types. After building a typology by organizing strategies according to the conflict type that each is best equipped to manage, we argue that the strategies most appropriate for managing one type of conflict may systematically backfire by escalating other conflict types. For example, the adoption of a superordinate identity is likely to resolve relational conflict, yet exacerbate status conflict. In addition to uncovering these instances of “negative spillovers,” we shed light on the rarer phenomena of “positive spillovers,” which occur when conflict management strategies resolve conflict types they were not originally designed to influence. By highlighting how individual conflict management strategies influence multiple conflict types—often in contrasting ways—this Perspectives article reconciles conflicting findings and redirects the literature by providing scholars with new recommendations on how to study conflict management in work groups.

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