Recent Research Maps Out Productive Conflict Engagement for Workplace Leaders

Summary of:

Manek, T., “Leading teams through productive conflict engagement” (2020). Master of Science in Organizational Dynamics Theses, University of Pennsylvania, 1-68.

Background & Theory:

Past research argues that workplace conflict has the potential to be constructive or deconstructive based on how it is handled. In the modern workplace, leaders play a big role in navigating conflict among employees.

As opposed to managing or resolving conflict, this study advocates approaching conflict in the manner of engaging with it. Conflict engagement is an ongoing process that requires leaders to face the challenges of conflict with wisdom and courage without assuming resolution is the end goal. This study maps out facets of productive conflict engagement that leaders can use in the workplace.

Question(s):

Research was conducted to answer the following question:

    1. What does research tell us about how to engage productive conflict in the workplace as a leader?

Methods:

This study was conducted by cross-examining past research on workplace conflict with a series of personal qualitative interviews.

Over 40 past research studies were used to create a theoretical background for the study and to compare to the data from the interviews. In total, 14 people from the University of Pennsylvania Liberal and Professional Studies Organizational Dynamics community took part in the interview process.

The interviews consisted of a questionnaire with open-ended questions to collect multiple perspectives on their individual workplace ecosystems and to examine if the participants had a role in utilizing conflict engagement strategies.

Specifically, the questionnaire consisted of questions about self-reflection, their relationship to their supervisors, and their work environment’s organizational culture. Data from the interviews were categorized into emergent themes and cross-referenced with past workplace conflict literature.

Results:

The data from the interviews revealed a number of important factors that contribute to engaging in productive conflict including emotional intelligence, psychological safety, and building relationships. The themes resulting from this data are relatively apparent in past research as well. From this data, a model for productive conflict engagement was created:

  1. Awareness of Our Own Personal Reactions to Conflict: Especially for leaders, the ways in which individuals think of conflict and react to conflict shape how they act when in conflict. People who see no benefit to conflict will likely avoid, react aggressively, or delegate it when it comes up. This being said, it is important for leaders to shift their attitude about conflict and realize that engagement is the first step to resolving conflict. Once leaders choose to engage, viewing conflict as an interactive process can help them understand that working through conflict is an active process of taking steps towards resolution. All of this being said, self-awareness is the basis on which leaders can begin to productively engage in conflict.
  2. Building Relationships: Stated simply, relationships promote better conflict management. Especially for people in leadership positions, building relationships with coworkers is crucial to fostering trust and minimizing unhealthy relationship conflict. Past research confirms the importance of relationship in working through conflict, suggesting that conflict and relationships operate cyclically together. For example, the act of forming a relationship leads to better engagement of conflict which in turn helps form better relationships.
  3. Creating a Safe Environment: Feeling empowered and confident enough to engage in productive conflict requires a psychologically safe environment for employees. For leaders, this means creating an atmosphere where conflict norming is embraced. Conflict norming is establishing ground rules for engaging in conflict that the workplace can agree on. When everyone feels they are playing by the same rules, they feel safer productively engaging in conflict.
  4. Enabling Systems: The presence of organizational systems provides structure for employees to productively engage in conflict. Leaders have the ability to create their own structures while role modeling productive conflict engagement behaviors and seeking consistent feedback. Once a safe environment is created, leaders have the ability to orchestrate conflict in order to enable these systems. Orchestrating conflict from a leadership perspective means facilitating employee groups while regulating the temperature and intensity of the conflict. For example, to raise conflict temperature, leaders could draw attention to differences within the group. On the other hand, a leader could lower conflict temperature by providing structure or claiming responsibility for some issues.

What We Can Learn:

Looking over this research, we can take away the following key insight:

  • To productively engage in conflict as a leader means having awareness of your own beliefs on conflict, building relationships with fellow employees, creating a safe environment that employees feel safe in to engage in conflict, and enabling systems to provide structure for engaging in conflict.

Final Takeaways

For Consultants: Organizational leaders who wish to avoid workplace conflict or use their power to shut it down likely do not have a multi-faceted view of conflict. As a consultant, revealing the positive effects of engaging in conflict to these leaders could be very helpful as the first step to a healthier organizational conflict climate.

For Everyone: Conflict is best handled in safe environments with people you trust. On top of this, following an agreed-upon structured format of how to handle conflict will help create an atmosphere of productive conflict engagement.