How conflict can reduce stress in the workplace

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Stress and conflict are unavoidable aspects of life and can be extremely destructive forces if left unchecked. A survey conducted by the UK government found that work-related stress resulted in 17.9 million lost working days in 2019, directly impacting the country’s economic productivity.

Previous studies also detail the negative consequences of work-related stress, such as low job satisfaction, high turnover rates, and negative effects on employees’ mental well-being and health, such as an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

“A major source of work-related stress is interpersonal conflict, and this is well documented,” said Tsai Ming-Hong, associate professor of psychology at Singapore Management University (SMU), in a recent seminar organized by SMU’s Behavioral Sciences Initiative. During the seminar, he shared his insights from his new research work.

According to Professor Tsai, there are two common types of conflict: task-related conflict, which relates to disagreements about work-related issues, and relationship conflict, which relates to tension between people. Both types of conflict are positively correlated with stress responses, including work stress, and somatic symptoms such as headaches and upset stomachs. In his research he tried to find out whether task-related conflicts can reduce stress.

“When task-related conflicts arise, they vary in intensity. Some conflict expressions can be mild, usually when people are discussing, considering, or expressing different ideas. On the other hand, certain expressions can be seen as intense, e.g. when people argue, argue about different opinions and criticize each other’s suggestions,” explained Professor Tsai. “What my study suggests is that mild forms of conflict expression can reduce work-related stress, while intense ones forms of conflict expression have the opposite effect.”

Threats are what we perceive them to be

Based on conflict expression theory, people are less likely to undermine the influence of others during mild forms of conflict expression than when more intense conflict is expressed. They are also less likely to hold onto their own opinions and perceive others as a threat to themselves.

Mild forms of conflict expression provide an opportunity to bring up essential information that can reduce uncertainties seen as a threat to personal goals. For example, when individuals participate in debates and express different points of view, they receive relevant information that helps them to understand each other. As is well known, discussions within project groups also promote the exchange of information.

“This shows that mild types of conflict expressions can stimulate information processing to resolve the uncertainty that can provoke threatening reactions,” Professor Tsai shared.

On the other hand, more intense expressions of conflict can lead to others being perceived as a threat, since the expressions and expressions that occur during the conflict are often motivated by self-interest. When people are involved in such conflicts, they tend to be more anchored in their positions, with an increased motivation to undermine the influence of others. This leads them to staunchly defend their opinions and attack dissenting points of view.

“In such situations, we often come across urgently presented arguments for our own position. The alternate perspective is also listened to less, as each side repeats their own position multiple times. These selfish acts tend to convey a sense of threat to the perceiver,” Professor Tsai described.

Fostering a culture of collaboration through conflict

When working in cooperative teams, conflicts are inevitable. However, Professor Tsai’s research indicates that openly expressing disagreements could decide how the conflict would unfold. He also found that people who express milder forms of task-related conflict are more likely to collaborate and complete tasks than those who express more intense forms.

“Contrary to our general assumption that conflict is detrimental to collaboration, research shows that mild forms of conflict expression, such as debate and deliberation, can promote collaboration by signaling susceptibility to differing opinions,” he stressed.

However, intense expressions of conflict convey resistance to alternative viewpoints and thus discourage cooperation. The results suggest that individuals can achieve more effective collaboration when they formulate their tasks as debates or include communication instructions expressing mild task conflicts. In this way, people focus more on enhancing their perception of each other’s openness to divergent viewpoints, rather than trying to influence each other’s emotions.

“The positive impact of mild task-related conflict on collaboration can be helpful for organizations looking to build a culture of openness in the workplace,” Professor Tsai added. “Organizations can reframe their decision-making processes as a problem-solving task rather than an appraisal task, and present discussions as debates.”

More information:
Ming-Hong Tsai, Can Conflict Promote Cooperation? The positive impact of mild versus intense task conflicts on perceived openness rather than emotions., Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied (2022). DOI: 10.1037/xap0000448

Provided by Singapore Management University

Citation: Friendly Fire: How Conflicts Can Reduce Stress in the Workplace (2022, November 28), retrieved November 28, 2022 from

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