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Award-Winning Paper On Conflict In Teams Tests Old Ideas

The bossy teammate, the boring one, the squabble over protocol and procedures—everyone who has ever worked on a team knows the pitfalls that impede progress to the goal. “The challenges of working in teams—increasingly the norm in organizations today—are considerable,” says Laurie Weingart, professor of Organizational Behavior and Theory and director of the Tepper School Center for Interdisciplinary Research on Teams.

“Some degree of conflict causes people to confront issues, learn to take different perspectives, and be more creative,” she adds. “But high levels of conflict produce tension and antagonism and distract team members from performing the task. Much research has been done on the relationship between task-oriented conflict (disagreements over the distribution of resources, for example) and relationship-oriented conflict (that is, members of the team not getting along well with each other), and the quality of the outcome or the performance of the team.”

Weingart notes that, for some time, researchers assumed that relationship conflict hurt team effectiveness, but that task conflict, under certain circumstances, could be beneficial. In 2003, she and a colleague at the University of Amsterdam performed a study of existing empirical studies and turned this theory on its head. Their paper, “Task Versus Relationship Conflict, Team Performance, and Team Member Satisfaction: A Meta-Analysis,” published in 2003 in the Journal of Applied Psychology, recently received an award from the Conflict Management Division of the Academy of Management for the “Most Influential Article/Chapter” published in the four-year period between 2001 and 2004.

“What we discovered was that there were no differences in the correlations of task conflict and relationship conflict, respectively, on team performance—that is, they were equally detrimental,” says Weingart. “This finding does not mean that conflict—the clash of ideas and personalities that can cause a team to approach a problem more creatively—is never beneficial or functional; however, when conflict of any sort becomes more intense, cognitive load increases, information processing is impeded, and team performance suffers.”

She adds that she works to quantify the relationship between cognitive and affective behaviors of people in teams. “My current empirical research focuses on the ways in which team members manage conflict, as certain strategies appear more effective than others.”

Editor's Note: The article is not viewable on the Journal of Applied Psychology's website without subscription.

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