A chaotic, mass-casualty, emergency response drill proved the ideal setting for management Ph.D. candidate Semin Park to test a theory about how dynamic conflict relations emerge and evolve over time.
Partnering with an academy that trains future paramedics, Park was allowed to get to know the trainees, ask about their workplace friendships, witness the multi-vehicle incident and active-shooter drill, and videotape their interactions. Her findings are part of her forthcoming dissertation.
“Using what I knew about who favored whom, I was able to compose different teams and assign roles to different paramedics in the training exercise,” Park said. “Sometimes you have to work closely with people whom you have a strained relationship with, and sometimes you don’t.”
Park got the paramedic trainees to wear monitoring equipment so that she could track where they were and who they were with during the mock drill. The equipment was funded by the U.S. Army Research Institute, which is also invested in team dynamics.
“We watched as a paramedic trainee spotted a colleague whom he disliked, and quickly scanned the crowd for someone else to help him care for the injured patient,” she said. “It showed us that even in an emergency, a life-or-death situation, pre-existing relationships matter. People who don’t like each other tend to not go near each other, regardless of the role they’re in. It’s absolutely fascinating.”
A New Look at Team Conflict
Park is the lead researcher in a forthcoming paper in the Academy of Management Review exploring “A Network Conceptualization of Team Conflict.” It is co-authored with UConn management professors John E. Mathieu and Travis J. Grosser.
“Early in my Ph.D. program I became interested in the conflict that occurs in the workplace all the time, which seems to be something employees struggle with even more than the tasks that they need to complete,” said Park, who began her research in 2015. “Conflict relations can spread across teams and create subgroups in the workplace, new networks and ties and patterns of work. And yet, we found that, traditional conflict research was limited when it came to deciphering those dynamics.”
Conflict in the workplace can be divided into two forms, the UConn researchers wrote. Relationship conflict (RC) which describes interpersonal incompatibilities has been found to provoke employees’ negative emotions, which limit their task-related processing abilities. It may result in one employee withdrawing from, avoiding, or engaging in tasks with the other. The impact is least detrimental when they are unrelated with designed task-flow ties, and most problematic when disgruntled employees share work assignment responsibilities. Employees are unlikely to seek advice, and are generally unwilling to cooperate with those whom they have emotional conflicts, the researchers wrote.
A second form of conflict is based not on personal traits but on task conflict (TC). This form of conflict can actually be beneficial for an organization because it prevents “groupthink” and premature consensus. It can also lead to higher quality group discussions among members, the researchers said.
They investigate how interpersonal and task-based conflicts can impact work team effectiveness. In the past, they said, workplace conflict has been painted with a broad brush. They argue that team conflict is particularly complex because each team member may experience, or perceive, varying degrees of conflict with another team member, and may have different work responsibilities with the person or people with whom they conflict. The relationship, therefore, between task flow and conflict management is complicated and an extremely significant determinant of team effectiveness, they said.
As such, the researchers created a more fine-tuned theoretical concept of conflict dynamics as part of a multiplex (two or more relationships) network configuration, recognizing the unique ties and tasks that impact how well a team works.
Workarounds Change the Workplace
“By taking the network perspective, you can see how conflict between and among people can change how workplace networks evolve over time,” Grosser said. “If I don’t like Person A, I try to work almost exclusively with Person B instead. Previous research approaches didn’t get to that level of nuance. Looking at the conflict patterns within teams can give us unique insight.
For example, two teams may have similar overall levels of conflict, but what happens on those teams may be very different if the pattern of conflict relationships differ. Maybe everyone is having trouble getting along with one person on one team, and maybe there are warring subgroups on the other.”
One of their key discoveries is that people tend to bypass dysfunctional relationships, pursuing instead “workarounds” which result in changes from the optimal task-flow patterns. The implications of this are even greater today as the modern workplace becomes more team-centric, said Grosser, who focuses his research on relationship networks within organizations.
As a way to circumvent dysfunctional relationships, workarounds may be viable and beneficial to team effectiveness. Conversely, they can pose issues for the person who is caught between the conflicted parties and it can cause additional stress for the team, the researchers wrote.
Mathieu, who works with teams under adverse circumstances, preparing them for space travel and other challenging situations, said the implications are most crucial for emergency services, whether in medical situations or air-traffic controllers.
“You certainly don’t want a ‘workaround’ that leaves a hospital patient unattended,” Mathieu said. “We want to identify where conflict came from, how it evolved, and, most importantly, what can be done to intervene?”