Monday, June 02, 2014

Conflict Avoidance: Does It Happen Less Often in Diverse Teams

Columbia Business School Professor Katherine Phillips and her co-authors have conducted several interesting experiments examining how people approach group work differently depending on the people with whom they expect to work.   According to Columbia's Ideas at Work newsletter, here is the major conclusion from their recent studies: "The researchers found that, in fact, when individuals anticipate going in to a homogeneous environment, they don’t process information as deeply or effectively as when they anticipate going into a diverse environment." 

For instance, in one experiment, participants completed a survey about their political opinions.  The researchers informed each subject that they would be meeting in-person afterward with another subject to engage in a problem-solving task.  Before that meeting, the scholars asked each subject to analyze a murder mystery and to try to solve it.   Then they were told the political affiliation of the person with whom they would be collaborating.   Finally, the subjects had to write an essay expressing their conclusions about the murder mystery.  In this first experiment, the meetings did not actually take place.  The scholars were interested in the attitudes that had formed leading up to the meetings.  

According to Columbia's Ideas at Work newsletter, "The researchers found that both Democrats and Republicans wrote considerably less detailed statements when they anticipated meeting with someone of their own political party than when they anticipated meeting someone of a different party."  The scholars posit that people tend to want to avoid conflict with people with whom they have many similarities.   They are less concerned about clashing with those quite different than themselves.  As a result, individuals seem to be less prepared when anticipating a meeting with someone with whom they have many similarities, even when those common bonds have nothing to do with the task at hand. 

In a subsequent experiment, the meetings actually did take place.   The scholars found that those who prepared more detailed essays did, in fact, solve the mystery more often than those with less comprehensive initial analyses.  In short, preparation did matter on this task, and the individuals expecting to meet with people quite different than themselves invested more time and effort into preparing for the problem-solving task. 

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