Organizational Justice and Intragroup Conflict: Est Etiam?

Shannon Kerwin, Jeremy Jordan, and Brian Turner recently published a study in Sport Management Review focusing on the relationship between organizational justice and conflict.* Kerwin had observed in previous work that more professionalized an organization became, the less group members engaged in emotional forms of conflict. She and her colleagues sought to extend this work by including perceptions of fairness, as well as different forms of conflict. 

The authors collected data from regional sports commissions and conventions and visitors bureaus (CVBs). They focused on two different forms of conflict: task, or disagreements about how to complete the work, and process, or disagreements about the process or way of completing things. They then looked at four different types of organizational justice: procedural, which refers to consistency of allocations; distributive, or the degree to which allocations match the inputs; interactional, which represents perceptions of how well you are treated; and informational, or the degree to which the procedures were explained to you. 

They found that distributive justice did not affect intragroup conflict, but the other forms did. Specifically, the lower the procedural, interactional, and informational justice, the greater the conflict. Based on this, the authors concluded, "sport managers may use these results to manage perceptions of fairness in an effort to reduce intragroup conflict" (p. 393). 

While there is much to learn from the study, I do take exception with the underlying position toward conflict; hence, the latin subtitle of the post, est etiam (is it the case?).  That is, the authors seem to believe that conflict is inherently bad and hence something to be reduced. And, in some respects, I agree. Emotional conflict can result in fighting, poor group processes, and disengagement. And, when task or process conflict is remarkably high, that might carry over into emotional conflict. For example, if someone routinely disagrees with me about how to complete a task (task conflict), I might interpret that as a personal affront (emotional conflict). 

That noted, there are many cases where conflict is a good thing. We have observed that conflict-averse leaders usually engage in maladaptive behaviors. Nancy Watson at CCCR was influential in my coming to see this. On the other hand, when leaders embrace conflict and see it as a source of learning and growth, the decision making is likely to improve (see here and here). For example, in our study of inclusive work environments, we found that leaders encouraged people to engage in difficult conversations and to voice different perspectives. The key in doing so, I suspect, is the broader organizational environment--one of cooperation and trust. When these elements are present, disagreements about how to complete a task are just that, disagreements. People trust one another and know that differences are a part of organizational life, and life in general for that matter. And, they know that disagreements lead to more ideas and better solutions. Groupthink is a pretty bad thing, after all (re: JFK and the Bay of Pigs). 

Again, I think Kerwin and colleague's study is an interesting one, and one from which lessons can be learned. And, it is also important to realize that conflict is a organizational reality. It is how people view and respond to that conflict that makes the difference. 

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* Kerwin, S., Jordan, J. S., & Turner, B. A. (2015). Organizational justice and conflict: Do perceptions of fairness influence disagreements? Sport Management Review, 18, 384-395.