If you interact with other people, and who doesn’t, at some point, you’ll encounter conflict. In this article, I help you understand how conflict comes about, how some conflict is good and some is bad, and what the consequences of conflict can be. In the next article, I’ll help you determine the best way to manage conflict.
Why is conflict management important?
Conflict is inevitable, unless you’re a hermit I suppose. People, even well-meaning people, often disagree. This applies to groups of virtually any size or kind, put people together, and eventually there WILL be conflict. This isn’t necessarily bad. In fact, to an extent, conflict is one of the main reasons for working in groups. The right sort of conflict, managed in the right way, is actually quite useful. To understand why, let’s start by talking about the sources of conflict.
Sources and types of conflict
Conflict comes from diversity. If we were all clones, exactly alike in every way, there wouldn’t be conflict. Conflict comes from our differences. Diversity leads to different perspectives, opinions, biases, and ways of thinking and knowing, among other things. These differences often lead to conflict. As I just said, conflict isn’t bad … it can be a good thing. In fact, groups are often purposely put together based on diversity and the ability to bring different perspectives and knowledge to bear on a problem; the diversity can lead to better outcomes. This, however, depends on three things, the type of conflict, the extent of the conflict, and the management of the conflict.
Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of conflict, affective or relationship-based and cognitive or task-oriented conflict. In short, relationship conflict is bad, and task-oriented cognitive conflict is good. Well, it can be good. Relationship-based conflict brings about all sorts of destructive behavior, such as bullying, misinformation, deception, and the like. These behaviors often lead to further relationship conflict, which brings on more bad behaviors, which brings on more relationship conflict, well, you get the picture. Conflict that’s focused on relationships is bad.
Cognitive or task-focused conflict usually brings about constructive behaviors that lead to better outcomes. But, and this is a big but, the better outcomes only come about if the group can work together to capitalize on the conflict. Maybe an example would help. Suppose you’re working with a group to raise some money for a non-profit organization. You’ve had really good results with bake sales. Your colleague has had good results from charity auctions. Now, you could start yelling at each other about which is better. Or you and your colleague can try to understand each other’s perspectives by asking why you prefer bake sales or auctions. You say that bake sales get members involved, and your colleague says auctions are exciting and can raise more money. So, you two and the rest of the group put your proverbial heads together and decide to combine the two ideas by having a bake sale that includes an auction. (Can’t you picture the crumbs flying as people bid while enjoying their homemade goodies? It would be interesting!)
Contrast this to the situation in which you’re a big St. Louis Cardinals fan and your colleague is a Chicago Cubs fan. (Yeah, I know, I love this example!) Because of this, you inherently distrust each other and automatically hate each other’s ideas. This leads to relationship conflict, and you start yelling at each other about how stupid bake sales or auctions are. This, of course, gets you nowhere good. You just get more and more upset at your Cubs-loving, auction-freak colleague and eventually one or both of you storm out of the meeting in disgust. (By the way, it’s much harder to do this dramatically on Zoom!)
Let’s look at diversity again. As I said, conflict comes from diversity, but like conflict, diversity can be productive or counterproductive, depending on its source. We can classify diversity into three types, informational diversity, social category diversity, and value diversity. Informational diversity is about differences in knowledge and perspectives. These can come from differences in experiences, expertise, education and other factors. Such differences lead to differences in the skills, knowledge, and perspectives that the individual brings to bear on the problem or task at hand. When managed well, these differences can result in beneficial outcomes. But this requires effectively taking advantage of the differences, which requires honest attempts to listen to, understand, and consider the perspectives of others. When this doesn’t happen, informational diversity can lead to relationship conflict, which is a bad thing. One thing that can keep this from happening is trust. When group members trust each other, task conflict is much less likely to lead to relationship conflict.
Social category diversity, which is sometimes called demographic diversity, comes from differences in group memberships based on things such as age, race, gender, and ethnicity among others. I suppose if we stretch this a bit, we can also claim some social category diversity based on whether you’re a Cardinals or Cubs fan, if that difference is obvious. This is actually an interesting situation. Perceptions of social category differences are often brought on by visible or readily apparent differences such as skin tone or accents. These cues signal explicit group memberships, which are the basis of social category diversity. Without these cues, we may not assign people to different groups. Even something as mundane as clothing can signal social group membership. You’re unlikely to assign someone wearing a well-worn cowboy hat and dusty boots to the same social category as someone wearing skinny jeans and leather sneakers. Of course, stereotypes and generalizations play into this. By the way, if you’re interested in how stereotypes and generalizations limit us, check out my article on The Problem with Generalizations. I’ll put a link below.
Finally, value diversity comes about when there are differences in what group members think the group’s real task, goal, or mission should be. These differences can lead to task conflict, but may also lead to relationship conflict by dividing the group into us and them based on perceptions of the real task or goal. When I think of value diversity, I think of a long-ago canoe trip in which my rowing partner and I were rowing in different directions. Let’s just say there were some circles involved until we figured things out. You’ve probably been in groups that had a similar feel, and a similar lack of progress.
Let’s think about progress for a minute. What is progress? Progress is movement towards some goal. The dictionary definitions of progress literally mention movement or advancement towards a destination or goal. What if group members have different goals? In these situations, what does progress even mean? Well, progress will mean different things to different people, so what's progress in your mind might be moving backwards in someone else’s.
Consequences of the different types of conflict
Now that you understand something about the different types and sources of conflict, I’ll turn attention to the consequences of different types and sources of conflict. I’ve already mentioned that relationship conflict is typically bad, meaning that it brings about negative outcomes, and that task conflict can lead to beneficial outcomes, but it might be useful to get a little more specific about the relationships between the types of diversity and some specific outcomes.
Informational diversity generally leads to task conflict (although as I said, it can lead to relationship conflict). Informational diversity also typically brings about improvements in actual group performance, but not to group efficiency. This kind of makes sense when you think about it. Taking the time to listen to, understand, and consider the perspectives of others is helpful in terms of the quality of the group’s outcomes, but takes time, so it doesn’t help with efficiency. Interestingly, it may not feel like your group is performing better when you deal with informational diversity, but your end product probably will be objectively better. Informational diversity can also improve commitment to a group, but may not improve your satisfaction with the group.
I want to give you a word of warning here. Task conflict, which comes from informational diversity, is beneficial but only when there’s not too much conflict. Picture an inverted U shaped graph with performance on one axis and task conflict on the other. As task conflict goes up, so does performance until you hit the top of the inverted U. Then more task conflict leads to decreased performance. This happens because the group has to spend too much time managing and resolving the conflict, and not enough on the task at hand. Exactly where this inflection point occurs differs across situations, but it’s always there somewhere.
Social category diversity is almost the flip side of informational diversity in terms of its effects. Social category diversity makes you think your group is performing better, but actual performance isn’t affected. Usually, social category diversity has no effect on group efficiency. Social category diversity has benefits across the board for interpersonal outcomes; it has positive effects on your satisfaction with and commitment to the group. In addition, social category diversity usually leads to increases in your intent to remain with the group. So, when you’re in a group that's diverse in social categories, you feel better about the group and its outputs, even though actual performance isn’t affected much one way or the other.
Now we come to value diversity. As my little rowing analogy might have hinted, no good comes from value diversity. When you can’t agree on your destination you end up going in circles or working at cross purposes. It’s just bad all the way around. Empirical evidence supports this thinking. Value diversity has negative effects on perceived and actual performance, efficiency, satisfaction, commitment, and intentions to remain with the group. Value diversity is just bad … really bad. Hopefully, this makes intuitive sense to you. If you don’t know where you’re going, you’re not going to get there. That’s true individually and in groups.
Both the good and the bad outcomes of conflict depend on the group’s ability to manage that conflict. I’m going to save the specifics of managing conflict for next time. For now, remember that value diversity is the key. If members of the group are pursuing different goals, then you’ve got a big problem. The first order of business is to come to some agreement about the group's goal. Until there’s agreement on this critical factor, there will be lots of conflict, and little progress.
Before moving to the three things you can do this week to better understand and deal with conflict, I want to briefly talk about group and individual goals. These are the goals that will result from the group’s collaborative efforts. Of course, each member of the group will also have individual goals that may color how they think about the group’s goals. These individual goals can be difficult to extract and understand, in part because the individuals may not even recognize all of their individual goals. For example, a group goal might be to plan a fundraising event, but an individual might be seeking acceptance by the group, although they might not realize it consciously. Finding a way to align group and individual goals is kind of a gold standard for management, but doing so can be a tall order. In any case, try to be aware of these individual goals and, to the extent you can, seek ways to align the individual members’ goals with those of the group as a whole.
Alright, let’s move on to three things you can do this week to deal with conflict. The first, and most important thing, is to LISTEN to the other person when you’re having some conflict. If you fail to listen, you’re going to have a tough time resolving conflict in a way that’s satisfying and productive. You might get your way, but at a high cost. When you actually try to listen, you can better understand where the other person is coming from. This is the second thing you can do, really try to understand the other person’s perspective. It’s kind of the “walk a mile (or 1.6 kilometers for listeners outside the USA) in someone else’s shoes” advice. You’ll be surprised by the results when you actually try to understand the other person’s perspective. Doing so will allow you to move towards the third thing to try: finding some common ground on goals.
Remember, value diversity, which pertains to goals, never leads to good outcomes. So, finding some agreement on goals is important, critically important. In the next article, I’ll talk more about specific conflict management techniques, but for now, just try to take the time to read so that you can understand. Just do that, and you’ll be better off. Here’s a bonus thing to try: when you face conflict, try to adopt an attitude of cooperation rather than competition. After all, when you find a win-win solution, you still win, but not at the expense of the other person. That’s a pretty good outcome.
I’ll leave you with a quote from William James, who is sometimes called the “Father of American psychology." “Whenever you’re in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it. That factor is attitude.”
Until next time, be well my friends.
The Live Well and Flourish podcast covers this and other topics that can help you live a flourishing life. Episodes are available at https://www.livewellandflourish.com/ and on all major podcast apps.
If you liked this article, you might want to listen to episode 38, ”The Futility of Incivility”
And to episode 39, “Incivility and Your Flourishing”
Risks and Benefits of Generalizations
For a deep dive on what it means to flourish, check out episode 8. “Human Flourishing – Living the Excellent Life.”