An investigation of the relationships between three types of conflict and perceived group performance in culturally diverse work groups.

Author:Korovyakovskaya, Inessa Yu.


Cultural diversity of the workforce is now a reality. Culturally diverse work groups and teams have become essential work units in all types of organizations around the globe. Cultural diversity in work groups in the United States reflects a cultural mosaic of work environments in organizations around the world. Interaction of multiple cultures brings the need for intercultural understanding (Marga, 2010) to better manage intergroup interactions, to prevent conflicts, and to help culturally diverse groups and teams reach their performance potential.

Literature reveals mixed results on the benefits and harm of conflict to groups and organizations. Early organizational conflict theorists suggested that conflict is detrimental to organizational functioning and focused much of their attention on the causes and resolution of conflict. More recently, researchers have theorized that conflict is beneficial under some circumstances (Tjosvold, 1991).

Work group members experience conflicts that can be categorized into relationship, task, and process types of conflict (Amason & Sapienza, 1997; Jehn, 1992, 1997; Pelled, 1996; Pinkley, 1990). Having performed a longitudinal study, Jehn and Mannix (2001) were able to create an ideal conflict profile for members of work groups. These members had "similar pre-established value systems, high levels of trust and respect, and open discussion norms around conflict during the middle stages of their interaction" (p. 248).

While relationship conflict is an awareness of interpersonal incompatibilities that includes emotions, task conflict is an awareness of differences in opinions regarding a group task (Jehn & Mannix, 2001). Process conflict (Jehn, 1997; Jehn et al., 1999) is an awareness of differences regarding the way for a task to be accomplished.

Researchers found that moderate levels of task conflict have been beneficial to group performance on selected types of tasks (Jehn, 1995; Shah & Jehn, 1993). Differences of opinion about the work tasks improve decision quality due to the synthesis of group opinions (Mason & Mitroff, 1981; Schweiger & Sandberg, 1989; Schwenk, 1990). Low levels of relationship conflict help group members develop relationships necessary for effective performance. Process conflict has not been investigated extensively (Jehn & Mannix, 2001). Jehn (1992) found that the process conflict was negatively associated with group morale and positively associated with decreased productivity.

A substantial amount of research findings on diversity effects conducted prior to the 1980s indicate a negative relationship between ethnic diversity and performance outcomes based on faulty work processes. This relationship is explained by process-oriented difficulties in communication, coordination, and collaboration that occur when a groups' diversity is constantly increasing (Tajfel, 1981; Turner, 1982, 1985).

Culturally diverse teams and groups differ in the degree of diversity ranging from culturally homogenous to culturally heterogeneous. Jehn et al. (1997) argue that studies on culturally diverse teams demonstrate the following problems experienced by moderately heterogeneous groups: relational conflict, significant communication problems, and low team identity that have a dysfunctional impact on team effectiveness. Further, heterogeneous teams report reduced satisfaction with the team work that also results in negative team performance (Ravlin, Thomas, & Ilsev, 2000; Earley & Mosakoski, 2000; Jehn, Northcraft, & Neale, 1999). It was found that the composition of the team determines the success of the group and may prevent the group from reaching its performance potential (Earley & Mosakoski, 2000; Earley & Gibson, 2002; Ravlin et al. 2000; Jehnet al. 1999).

Research on the antecedents of group performance in organizations posits that success depends on the ability of the work group to manage rather than avoid disagreements (Tjosvold, 1991; Gruenfeld, Mannix, Williams, & Neale, 1996). Further, it was found that unmanaged conflicts have detrimental effects on group performance (Bettenhausen, 1991; Jehn, 1997).

Meta-analyses of Bowers, Pharmer, and Salas (2000) and Webber and Donahue (2001) reveal mixed findings on the direct relationships between different types of diversity and performance. Specifically, these researchers report that neither surface nor deep-level diversity can be reliably linked to performance. Other researchers suggest that there should be some mediators that impact performance in diversity groups reported in findings (Van Knippenberg, De Dreu, & Homan, 2004). Further, research findings reveal that relationship and process conflict have been negatively associated with performance and morale, while task conflict has been shown to have positive effects on performance (Jehn, 1995, 1997; Amason & Sapienza, 1997).

The purpose of this study is to empirically investigate the relationships between intragroup conflict (task, process, and relationship) and perceived group performance in culturally diverse work groups. The major research question posed in this study is: What is the relationship between conflict and perceived group performance in culturally diverse work groups?


Similarity-Attraction Theory

There are three major theories widely used in analyzing the relationships between cultural diversity and group/organizational performance outcomes: information and decision-making theory; social identification and categorization theory; and similarity/attraction theory. The information and decision-making theory predicts a positive relationship between ethnic diversity and organizational performance outcomes, whereas social identification and categorization theory and similarity/attraction theory predict negative effects (Pitts & Jarry, 2007).

Categorization often involves visible demographic characteristics such as age, gender, and ethnicity. Further, individuals quickly stereotype and make judgments about out-group members with a biased perception of individuals from different ethnic backgrounds as deficient, or untrustworthy (Loden & Rosener, 1991). In an increasingly diverse organization, the number of out-groups may outnumber the number of in-groups, which is expected to cause trust, communication, and cooperation problems (Pitts & Jarry, 2007).

The similarity/attraction theory research posits that similarity in attributes, especially demographic variables, increases interpersonal attraction (Byrne, Clore, & Worchel, 1966). Individuals with similar backgrounds may find it easier to collaborate with one another. Lincoln and Miller (1979) find that individuals tend to select similar people out of a number of different individuals with whom to interact. Similarity makes it easier for one to have his or her values and ideas reinforced, while dissimilarity may leave room for doubt whether these values and ideas are right. Early research based on similarity/attraction theory finds that dissimilarity leads to decreased communication, communication errors, and message distortion (Triandis, 1960).

Byrne's (1971) work on the attraction-similarity paradigm finds that individuals are more attracted to others whom they believe hold similar attitudes to themselves and judge those individuals as more intelligent and knowledgeable. In his classic research on cultural diversity, Triandis (1959, 1960) found that members of culturally dissimilar groups are less likely to be attracted to one other and have more difficulty in communicating with each other than members of culturally homogeneous groups. Other researchers (Hoffman, 1959; Hoffman & Maier, 1961) find that racially diverse groups tend to have more process-related problems than racially homogeneous groups.

In sum, similarity-attraction approach highlights the problems with distinctiveness or difference in groups. In this paradigm, individuals will be more attracted to similar others and will experience more cohesion (O'Reilly, Caldwell, & Barnett, 1989), less relational conflict (Jehn et al., 1997), lower turnover (Wagner, Pfeffer, & O'Reilly, 1984), and more commitment (Tsui, Egan, & O'Reilly, 1992) than in homogeneous groups.

In this study, we posit that members of culturally diverse work groups will be more willing to cooperate with other members who share similar cultural values and characteristics. Further, the similarity-attraction based on cultural values will result in less miscommunication and reduced conflict in such groups.

Intra-group Conflict

Ongoing literature reports mixed results from empirical studies on the positive and negative impact of conflict to groups and organizations (Jehn, 1995; De Dreu & Weingart, 2003; De Wit, Greer & Jehn, 2012). The history of research on conflict reveals that early organizational conflict theorists thought of conflict as dysfunctional to organizations while contemporary researchers agree that conflict is beneficial under some circumstances (Tjosvold, 1991).

While groups have become building blocks for organizations, they experience their own intrinsic problems of communication, coordination, and conflict management (Jehn, 1995). Having conducted a meta-analysis on the relationship between intra-group conflict to group outcomes, De Dreu and Weingart (2003) have found stable negative relationships between relationship and process conflict and group outcomes. De Wit et al. (2012) extended this study by conducting a meta-analysis of 116 empirical studies of intra-group conflict (n = 8,880 groups) and its relationship with group outcomes. New trends in research on these relationships were identified. Some of the findings are consistent in both meta-analyses. Contrary to the results of the study by De Dreu & Weingart (2003), De Wit et al. (2012) did not find a strong and negative relationship between task conflict and group performance.

Jehn (1995) analyzed the structure of 105 work groups and management teams to find out whether...

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