Thursday, 3 May 2012

Characteristics of Affective and Substantive Conflicts in the Turkish Organizational Context

Researchers with different research questions have used different labels for the more or less similar types or sources of conflicts. Observably, labels such as task and relationship, task and person, cognitive and affective, cognitive and socio-emotional conflicts; are amongst the most preferred and usually interchangeably used
labels. Interestingly, a basic categorization of researchers and research topics according to the labels they preferred, does not provide one with sound grounds to contend that specific research orientations or grand theories have motivated researchers to prefer one label over another. Observably, the more the literature accumulates the more researchers cite and use one another's findings, conceptualizations and labels in order to build ground for their own hypothesis, conceptualizations, assertions and labels for identifying the two different types of conflicts.

The efforts to explain the varying terminology for the two conflict types prove to be inefficient since all the labels identified above can and do substitute for one another as a derive of their more or less similar conceptualizations and often operationalizations. This in turn means that, all of the researches conducted with any one of these conceptualizations form and contribute to one grand literature on affective and substantive conflicts — the terms in use from this point on. With respect to this literature, below the mainstream characteristics associated with affective and substantive conflicts are listed so as to propose theoretically integrated definitions of the two concepts.

Regarding affective conflicts, first of all there is a general supposition in the literature that defines affective conflicts as a derive or an awareness of interpersonal incompatibilities, which in turn result in interpersonal clashes and disputes.

Second, although few, some researchers identify and some even operationalize the following specific issues that give rise to affective conflicts: personality differences, differences in attitudes and opinions, struggles for leadership, unequal workloads, personality conflicts, competition for payoffs, identity oriented issues, interpersonal style, attitudes and political preferences, norms and values, personality, and sense of humor.

Third, most definitions of affective conflicts suggest and support the idea that these conflict processes are characterized by affective components and emotional clashes, which in turn result in feelings of tension, animosity, annoyance; friction, frustration, irritation, as well as anger, distrust, and fear.

Regarding substantive conflicts, first of all the literature suggests that these conflicts are disagreements between disputants regarding a problem, goal or task. Second, at the heart of these disagreements lies an interpretive, judgmental, rational, ideational and intellectual difference between disputants. Third, some researchers have clearly identified the issues that are embedded in substantive conflicts. These issues are: procedural matters, ideational matters, best means to achieve objectives, nature and importance of task goals, key decision areas, procedures for task accomplishment, appropriate choice for action, allocation of resources, application of procedures, and development and implementation of policies.

Fourth, some researchers have made a clear distinction between substantive conflicts that pertain to the content and process of a task. Wall & Nolan’s (1986) content analysis study, for example, distinguishes between substantive conflicts over procedural and ideational matters, where the former ones are “described as having their origin in problems of an organizational, procedural, or mechanical nature” and the latter ones are “described as having their origin in problems relating to the ideas, goals, and values associated with the substantive content of the task”. Summarily stated, substantive conflicts may evolve around ideational – id est. content-related issues or concerns, as well as procedural – id est. method-related ones.

In addition to all of these above listed characteristics, observably, some researchers have stressed that affective and substantive definition of a conflict is based on disputants’ perceptions and interpretations of the conflict process. People identify their conflicts according to their personal concerns and values, and underlines the crucial role of interpretation in the discourse of substantive and affective conflicts. Pointing to the role of perceptual processes in identifying affective and substantive conflicts conforms to the basic definition of conflict as “perceived divergences of interests, or a belief that parties’ current aspirations cannot be achieved simultaneously”. Accordingly, “It seems likely, therefore, that conflict situations elicit a well-defined cognitive structure based on past experiences with conflict as well as present concerns and interests”. “Thus, the distinction between task and relationship conflict is not necessarily an objective one. Rather, it is a distinction made by the individuals who experience the conflicts”.

Therefore, it is asserted here that a good definition of either type of conflict should underline the cognitive components at work, that the conflict process is not always an objective one, but instead is subjectively shaped by disputants’ perceptions, awareness and interpretations.

Finally, most of the research results converge upon the contention that the two types of conflicts are positively correlated6. More specifically, substantive conflicts can “generate emotionally harsh language, which can be taken personally. We then have both task and psychological conflicts occurring at the same lime”. Simons & Peterson (2000) report significant evidence to support that substantive conflict may lead to affective conflict through the processes of misattribution and self-fulfilling prophecy, when individuals’ perceptions result in biased interpretations of task issues as personal attacks, and also through behavioral processes, where employment of emotionally loaded and harsh language, intimidation tactics and alike irritate some of the parties and thus, “the hurt feelings that result from poorly managed or expressed task conflict can easily stimulate relationship conflict”.

While supporting a conceptual distinction between affective and substantive conflicts as two separate dimensions Pelled (1996) also underlines the possibility of an interdependence among both, and indicates that substantive discussions may give rise to affective conflict especially when parties are emotionally attached to the issues at the heart of the disagreement. However, she posits that the reverse does not hold – id est. affective conflict does not produce substantive disputes, because “although individuals may express hostility by manufacturing useless criticisms of each other’s task-related ideas, this interaction would constitute an attempt to masquerade affective conflict as substantive conflict, and group members are apt to perceive it as such”.

Experts’ stress the correlation between both types of conflicts and that particularly substantive conflict may transform into affective ones.

Interdependence among the two types of conflicts works both ways and also that affective conflicts can transform into substantive ones just as substantive conflicts may transform into affective ones, especially when team members “become so personally involved in an identity-oriented conflict that they begin to obstruct one another in task-related aspects as well” Thus, according to the authors; “one type of conflict can breed the other, in the sense that when one type of conflict is salient, the other type might increase”. Similarly, Jehn (1997) in her qualitative study reports the manifestation of affective conflicts as task conflicts in addition to unresolved task conflicts leading to affective conflicts.

However, with respect to how affective conflicts may transform into substantive ones through a sabotaging process, where disputants due to underlying affective issues attempt to “sabotage any influence that the other might have by manufacturing task conflict”, Simons & Peterson (2000) state that “in addition to having weak theoretical and empirical support, this mechanism would be extremely difficult to test, as it would require issue-specific, longitudinal data”.

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