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Conflict at work: Who ignores it and why

  • Contact Diane Swanbrow
ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Nobody likes conflict at work, but a new study shows that Americans are a lot more optimistic than East Asians about the chances of successfully resolving disputes on the job. And they're a lot more willing to join work teams that have a high potential for inter-personal conflict.

"Americans were more likely to join a talented team with a high potential for relationship conflicts," said Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, a University of Michigan researcher. "East Asians avoid joining these kinds of groups?for them, the potential for turmoil trumps technical talent."

Sanchez-Burks, a social psychologist at the U-M Institute for Social Research and the Ross School of Business, conducted three studies exploring cultural differences about relationship conflicts at work with U-M colleague Eric Neuman. The article on these studies, titled "Folk Wisdom about Relationship Conflict," will be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal Negotiation and Conflict Management Research.

Altogether, the studies involved more than 300 business school students of European American and East Asian descent, who were asked to answer questions about their attitudes and respond to hypothetical scenarios involving work-related conflicts.

Both East Asians and Americans agreed that task conflict?disagreements among team members about how a specific task should be performed?could interfere with job performance. And both agreed that it was important to try to resolve these kinds of conflicts as early as possible.

But when it came to relationship conflicts?the kind of social-emotional and personality-based differences that can derail even the most efficient and well-oiled work teams?Eastern and Western attitudes sharply diverged.

Americans were much more optimistic that group performance would not necessarily suffer because of personality conflicts, and they were more willing to join groups with a high potential for these kinds of disputes.

In one study, students from U.S. and Korean universities were asked to read vignettes describing a workgroup, then asked whether they wanted to join the group. The description of the tasks the group would deal with was the same in all versions of the vignettes. But in one version, the group was described as getting along very well. "You can picture the three of you getting together when you're not working?" this description read, and having "...a really good time working together."

The other version painted a much less rosy picture: " get the sense the group will not click socially. You cannot picture the three of you getting together when you're not working on the project, and you believe the group is likely to have disagreements on personal/social issues, although not necessarily on anything related to the project."

According to Sanchez-Burks and Neuman, about 56 percent of the Americans were willing to join the group described as likely to experience relationship conflicts, compared to just 26 percent of the East Asians.

The findings strengthen previous research showing that Americans tend to view the personal dimension as less important in work settings than East Asians do, the researchers said. This attitude is part of what Sanchez-Burks has termed "Protestant Relationship Ideology," a tendency among Americans to approach getting the job done by playing down the social-emotional and relationship aspects of the work process.

"Americans tend to view personal relationship?whether good or bad?as less relevant at work than they are outside of work," said Sanchez-Burks, "while East Asians tend to emphasize the importance of this dimension in work settings as much as, or more than, in non-work settings. This is part of an emerging portrait of uniquely American workways.

"Certainly there is a great deal of individual variation in these cultural values, but a growing body of cross-cultural research suggests that overall, these differences are real. As a growing number of people find themselves working together in teams with individuals of different cultures, these insights can help in developing strategies to minimize problems and improve performance."

More about Sanchez-Burks