Conflict Expression: Moving from the ‘What’ to the ‘How’ in Assessing Conflict in the Workplace

International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution

In both research and practice, conflicts at work are often categorized based on what they are about: conflicts over the actual work that is being done (i.e. task), disagreements over how team members should work together (i.e. process), or conflicts resulting from personal differences (i.e. relationship). This is ‘the what’ in a conflict. While conventional wisdom would suggest that conflict in the workplace is generally not good, results from multiple research studies suggest that certain combinations of conflict can be constructive[1], and that process disagreement can be the critical mechanism for conflicts being destructive[2]. However, categorizing conflicts in this way does not tell the whole story for understanding whether conflicts will take a more constructive or destructive course over time.

In response to this, research presented at the 2014 International Association of Conflict Management (IACM) conference provides a different approach for measuring conflict in the workplace. Kristin Behfar, PhD, from the University of Virginia, along with other collaborators, has developed a new measure of conflict expression designed specifically to tap into the ways in which team members express conflict along two dimensions. This is ‘the how’ of the conflict.

Directness refers to how explicit individuals are in expressing concerns verbally and non-verbally, as well as how often they bring concerns straight to the relevant party, rather than through a third party. Oppositional intensity refers to the strength, or amount of energy, used to express concerns. Previous research has demonstrated that having a sense of conflicts along these two dimensions is critical for assessing the likelihood of emerging conflicts entering into a destructive escalatory spirals.

The results of this initial research suggests that measuring conflict in this way provides a more nuanced understanding of conflict processes for the types of conflicts described above. This matters because the two dimensions assessed in this measure provide much more information about how the conflict will likely unfold over time in terms of the amount of information that is exchanged, and the extent to which negative emotional reactions will result. This is important for practitioners engaging directly with organizational conflicts because, rather than learning only about currently manifesting conflict processes (i.e. the what), this measure provides a pragmatic opportunity to measure what members do when faced with conflict (i.e. the how). This, in turn, provides much more useful data about the potential trajectory of conflicts over time, providing the practitioner with the opportunity both to preempt more serious conflict outcomes (i.e. escalating spirals) and to respond more effectively based on the conflict behaviors that organization members are currently employing.

Behfar, K. J. et al (2014). Measuring Conflict Expression: A Complementary Approach to Understanding Conflict. Presented at the Annual Meeting of the International Association of Conflict Management (IACM).


Nick Redding

Nick Redding is a doctoral student in the Social-Organizational Psychology department at Teachers College, Columbia University, and a Project Coordinator for the Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict and Complexity (AC4) at the Earth Institute, Columbia University. Before coming to Columbia, he spent two years living in South Africa as a U.S.… MORE >

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