Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Some of us are more suited to productive conflict

If you're interested in how team conflict can be beneficial, here's more research on the issue from Bret Bradley and colleagues, this time focusing on team member personality. Although we know that certain personality traits affect whether conflict occurs - for instance, less agreeable people are more likely to find themselves in a clash - this research investigated what matters when it occurs.

Bradley and colleagues figured that two traits might be critical. People more open to experience are more likely to raise issues and enjoy frank discussion, but are also willing to compromise and be flexible in terms of how they are prepared to act in the future. Similarly, emotionally stable people tend not to anxiously skirt issues but are willing to go to others to voice problems directly, and are more likely to contribute to positive emotional states within the team, regarding other members positively. We might expect such people to be involved in transparent and resolvable conflicts.

As with the previous work, the study drew on real academic performance of undergraduate business students, working in 117 teams with an average of five members apiece. Each team worked interdependently for 13 weeks, culminating in a final term project, which was evaluated to give information about team performance. Participants completed a questionnaire on personality in week four and another on task conflict in week ten. A week four exam was used to control for levels of content knowledge within the group.

The results of the study was firm and striking. Teams who had a high average openness to experience actively benefited from high task conflict. But those low in this area benefited from low task conflict. In fact, the high-high group and the low-low group had a comparable level of performance. Exactly the same pattern was found with emotional stability; meanwhile, none of the other Big 5 personality traits produced such effects.

The authors conclude that both openness to experience and emotional stability are important features of teams that get involved with conflict. The study poses another point: while conflict may be functional for some groups, others thrive in low-conflict conditions. This would explain the  near-zero relationship between the two observed from meta-analysis, and suggest that we should be cautious of maxims such as 'a little conflict is good for you'. On the basis of this study, it seems this would depend on who you are, and who your colleagues are, too.

ResearchBlogging.orgBradley, B., Klotz, A., Postlethwaite, B., & Brown, K. (2013). Ready to rumble: How team personality composition and task conflict interact to improve performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 98 (2), 385-392 DOI: 10.1037/a0029845
Further reading:

De Dreu, C. K. W., & Weingart, L. R. (2003). Task versus relationship conflict, team performance, and team member satisfaction: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88, 741–749. DOI:10.1037/0021-9010.88.4.741

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