Study Shows Leadership Style Makes a Difference in Mitigating Workplace Conflict

Summary of:

Adamovic, M., Gahan, P., Olsen, J., Harley, B., Healy, J., and Theilacker, M., “Bringing the Leader Back in: Why, How, and When Leadership Empowerment Behavior Shapes Coworker Conflict” (2020). Group & Organization Management. 1-38.

Background & Theory:

Leadership empowerment behavior (LEB) is the process by which leaders empower employees to retain independent autonomy and make their own decisions, relying on trust in the employee to contribute to team and organizational goals. Past research has shown that LEB has the potential to mitigate workplace conflict through increased trust, autonomy, and control. However, research has also shown that LEB can instigate conflict because of a need to manage interpersonal interactions and increased workload. This study integrates the topics of LEB, workload, conflict, and social exchange theory to investigate the seemingly ambiguous effect LEB has on workplace conflict.

Question(s):

Research was conducted by Mladen Adamovic et al. to answer the following questions:

    1. What relationship (if any) exists between LEB and trust?
    2. What relationship (if any) exists between LEB, employee workload, and role clarity?
    3. What is the relationship between task conflict, relationship conflict, trust, and workload?

Methods:

Over 3,000 participants from 317 organizations took part in this study by filling out a Likert-Scale workplace survey related to LEB, trust, workplace conflict, and workload. Each of the variables’ questions was developed based on accurate scales from various past research studies. Measurement scales were validated using a confirmatory factor analysis via Mplus Version 8. Hypotheses were tested by applying structural equation modeling with latent variables also via Mplus Version 8.

Results:

The results of this study indicate that LEB is positively related to both affective and cognitive trust. Both affective and cognitive trust were negatively related to relationship and task conflict. These results reflect this study’s roots in social exchange theory, meaning that employees try to reciprocate the trustful behavior of empowering leaders and therefore, prevent conflicts.

LEB also exponentially reduces employee workload, but only when employees have satisfactory role clarity. However, too much LEB increases employee workload when role clarity is lacking. Employee workload was found to be positively related to task and relationship conflict. Relationship conflict was related negatively to task performance while task conflict was indirectly negatively related to task performance through relationship conflict. These results suggest that LEB is only beneficial in moderate amounts and when employees have a clear idea of their expectations and goals.

What We Can Learn:

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

  • Empowering and trustful leaders can help employees and organizational effectiveness by reducing coworker conflict. Employees that perceive their leaders as trusting are more likely to engage less in dysfunctional conflict, improving performance.
  • LEB can be incredibly effective in moderation, but it must be paired with employee role clarity in order for it to be beneficial for employees and workplace productivity.

Final Takeaways

For Consultants: Consultants should consider pairing leadership empowerment behavior training with training on role clarity communication to both prevent and reduce workplace conflict.

For Everyone: As a leader, empowering others by trusting them to handle certain job functions leads to a potential of decreased workplace conflict and therefore, an improved work environment.