Research Shows Too Much Cooperation Between Groups Can Cause Workplace Conflict

Summary of:

Schweiger, S., Konlechner, S. W., & Guttel, W. H. (2019). How cooperation reinforces conflict over time: The role of simplified images and disidentification. Project Management Journal, Volume 00(0), 1-15. DOI: 10.1177/8756972819891281 journals.sagepub.com/home/pmx

Background & Theory

The authors research how project management groups interact with one another, and how losing the delicate balance between cooperation and assertion creates conflict amongst the groups.

Research Questions

The authors evaluate the following questions in their study:

  1. How do assertiveness and cooperativeness affect a heterogeneous group in a workplace?
  2. What are the consequences and results when the balance between assertiveness and cooperativeness is not adequate?

Methods

The authors studied and interviewed a workplace project group in Austria over the course of 1 year and 1 month. 18 employees were interviewed across 3-5 month intervals, 10 being part of the specific project group (and broken into 3 subgroups) and 8 employees who worked nearby but were not in the specific project group. While the in-person interviews took place every 3-5 months, additional data was collected through interval phone calls and emails that were distributed amongst the employees being studied.

Results

The results showed that between the months of November 2015—December 2016, the three subgroups all developed negative images of the other groups. It was consistent that the subgroups each:

  1. Saw their own behavior as being a reaction to the other subgroups’ negative behavior and failed to see their own contribution to the problems
  2. Was found to vertically disidentify with the other subgroups (i.e., the other subgroups are not reliable, but our subgroup is reliable)
  3. Saw the other subgroups as incapable but with shared goals, so moved forward in an effort of cooperation without addressing the issues. This created more conflict and tension secretly held by the other groups.

What This Means

  • While cooperation may seem like a positive endeavor in a project group, it can create conflict over time and increase tension and over-assertiveness.
  • Mild conflict can lead to positive outcomes and unique strategies to solve workplace problems; too much conflict, which might be a result of over-cooperation, can lead to overall negative group conflict with few or no positive results.
  • Vertical disidentifying often arises from one group trying to be superior over another and stems from confusion. This has harmful effects on the group overall.
  • To avoid these issues, project subgroups or individuals should evaluate themselves and where they may contribute to conflict, have open conversations and communication to avoid misperceptions, and be willing to change their perspective of others and themselves over time.

Final Takeaway

For consultants: Having common goals is not always enough to resolve conflict. Groups must be willing to see how they contribute to the problem and be willing to see others’ perspectives. Encourage your workplace disputants to understand one another and have open lines of communication. This may be what it takes to create the cooperation-assertion balance needed to challenge each other in a good way and create positive outcomes.

For everyone: Be willing to communicate with those in your personal or work life in an open way, and really hear their side of the story when involved in conflicts. This may be all it takes for both of you to better understand one another and learn from each other rather than remain angry or at an impasse.

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