Thursday, 31 October 2013

What makes ill feeling between work colleagues shift faster?

An instance of personal friction with a colleague can create angry feelings that are slow to abate. Paradoxically, when the prickly day also involves a specific work-related dispute, bad moods don’t linger so long. This counter-intuitive finding may reflect our willingness to seek a benign explanation for unpleasant situations, blaming the context rather than the person.

The research, from a team led by Laurenz Meier, looked at day-to-day swings in ratings of anger. This longitudinal study asked the 131 participants to diarise their mood before work, after work, and before bed, over a period of two weeks. The participants also recorded daily incidents of task conflict - disagreements about how to solve problems – and incidents of personal frictions, or relationship conflict. Meier's team looked at how mood was altered following such conflicts, after controlling for start-of-day mood. Did conflicts lead to impaired well-being, in terms of a fouler mood, and if so, how much and for how long?

Study participants tended to feel angrier at the end of a day that involved interpersonal relationship conflict with colleagues, feelings that continued in a weaker form to bed-time and could even linger to the following morning. However, when the rough day also involved a task conflict as well as a relationship one, well-being was only worse at the end of the day, and tended to recover by bed-time.

Consistent with previous research, the unpleasant nature of interpersonal tensions awaken negative feelings that colour the working day. Meier's team believe that their paradoxical finding for work-related conflict reflects a preference to attribute such instances to a situation: 'tempers ran high because we all want the project to succeed', rather than to a person: 'she just doesn't like me'. Taking the more benign interpretation allows us to go to bed feeling less chewed up. The researchers also looked at somatic complaints such as headaches and back pain, and again found that these symptoms were highest with relationship conflict and no task conflict, but this mirroring of the angry-mood pattern did not reach overall significance.

According to this research, the more personal 'storm in a teacup' may actually be the most insidious type. With nothing wrong to fix, it's easier to paint the other person as difficult or even malevolent, and that may be a hard place to recover from. If you want to smooth ruffled feathers it may be useful to focus attention on the task components of disagreements, encouraging reappraisal of the situation, and leading people away from a less defensive mindset.

ResearchBlogging.orgMeier LL, Gross S, Spector PE, & Semmer NK (2013). Relationship and task conflict at work: interactive short-term effects on angry mood and somatic complaints. Journal of occupational health psychology, 18 (2), 144-56 PMID: 23506551

Further Reading:
Spector, P. E., & Bruk-Lee, V. (2008). Conflict, health, and well-being. In
C. K. W. De Dreu & M. J. Gelfand (Eds.), The psychology of conflict
and conflict management in organizations (pp. 267–288). San Francisco,
CA: Jossey-Bass.