de Wit, Greer, and Jehn: “The Paradox of Intragroup Conflict: A Meta-Analysis”

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March 2013

We tend to think of conflict as a general, all-encompassing term. There is the assumption that conflict in groups and teams has negative consequences. In “The paradox of intragroup conflict: A meta-analysis” (Journal of Applied Psychology. 2012. Vol. 97 Issue 2 pp. 360-390), FrankR. C. de Wit, L. L. Greer, and K.A. Jehn define and explore the different types of conflict and how they can impact the work of a group or team.

For their research, De Wit et al identified three types of conflict:

  • Task - content, outcomes
  • Relationship - values, norms, personality
  • Process - logistics, tasks, responsibilities

and two categories of impact:

  • Short term (proximal) - group viability (trust, cohesion, satisfaction)
  • Longer term (distal) - group performance (innovation, productivity, effectiveness)

The authors conducted a meta-analysis of 116 empirical studies (with 8,800 groups) of published and unpublished research completed between 1990 and 2010 that measured relationship, task, or process conflict, and also measured short term or longer term outcomes. In addition to the three types of conflict, and two categories of impact, they identified four possible moderators on impact:

  • Multiple concurrent types of conflict
  • Type of task
    • Creativity - innovation, idea generation, new services or products
    • Decision-making - need to reach consensus, no obvious answer
    • Production tasks - routine tasks to meet standards
    • Project tasks - problem solving and plan generation
  • Organizational level
  • Culture

Based on a review of earlier research, the authors expected that:

  • While task conflict can be shown to have a positive impact on group outcome, as it facilitates the exchange of ideas, when combined with either relationship or process conflict the impact would be negative.
  • The impact of conflict would be a function of the type of task the group was working on - conflict would have less impact in a group working on new approaches than one working on routine tasks.
  • The impact of conflict would be influenced by the organization level of the group - groups higher in the organization are more skilled at handling interpersonal issues.
  • Cultural context might have an influence on how conflict impacted a group.

The authors found the impact of conflict on groups to be complex.

  • Overall, the three types of conflict had a greater negative impact on group satisfaction than on group performance.
  • Overall, the impact of task conflict on group performance was neutral.
  • When multiple types of conflict existed, examined incrementally, process and relationship conflicts had a negative impact; the impact of task conflict was positive.
  • Task, relationship, and process conflict each had a negative impact on trust and group member commitment.
  • Process and relationship conflicts had a greater impact on both group satisfaction and group productivity than did task conflict.
  • Process and relationship conflicts had a negative impact on group productivity.
  • Task and relationship conflicts, but not process conflict, were positively related to counterproductive work behavior.
  • While relationship conflict generated negative feelings and had a negative impact on group cohesion, task conflict did not.
  • Task conflict had a more positive impact on the outcome for top management groups and when groups had a more quantitative outcome, such as a financial measure, or the quality of a decision.
  • For teams lower in the organization, process conflict had a negative impact on group performance.

The bottom line: Take the time in setting up a group project to review relationships among the group members. Clarify task and process expectations with the group at the start. In working with a group experiencing conflict, first take the time to analyze the type(s) of conflict. Then give some thought to the impact the conflict is likely to have on the group and its outcome before you decide how, or even whether, to address and attempt to resolve it.