High task conflict perceivers may be a valuable resource in a team while being vulnerable
|Datum:||18 oktober 2021|
Task conflict is inevitable in organizational teams as members have different opinions, understanding, and preferences towards the task from time to time. Task conflict, if not being managed properly, can transform into relationship conflict and harm team performance in the long run. Although managers may have developed their ways to help their teams cope with task conflict, they may fail to do so if they do not realize the existence of conflict asymmetry. Conflict asymmetry refers to the case that team members have different perceptions of the amount of task conflict within the team. According to research  , conflict asymmetry may have a negative influence on team functioning over and above team average amount of conflict.
Perceptions about task conflict are unlikely to be shared by all team members. Some members tend to perceive a higher amount of task conflict than others. This asymmetry has two sides. On the one hand, there are negative consequences for members who perceive higher task conflict than others. According to Jehn et al. (2010) , it is hard for ‘high task conflict perceivers’ to communicate their concerns about the work to others (who do not experience the high task conflict) and for others to empathize. As a result, they may feel unheard and even disrespected. Moreover, high task conflict perceivers can be distracted from their daily work such that they spend more time and effort resolving or escaping from the perceived conflict. Gradually, these will lead to lower satisfaction, lower performance, and higher absenteeism among members who perceive more task conflict than others .
On the other hand, high task conflict perceivers are valuable members in terms of effectiveness and innovative potential. According to Wang et al. (2020) , consistency is a basic human need and inconsistency triggers perceived threat. In a team context, conflict asymmetry induces a feeling of inconsistency among high task conflict perceivers who will then become uncertain about whether the team can fulfill its goals. To decrease uncertainty, they will devote more effort to the task, which in turn makes them motivated and effective members in the team. In terms of innovation, in a study on 171 employees from 57 organizational teams, professor Nijstad and I found that members who perceive more task conflict than the team average engage more in exploration activities. Exploration activities are focused on exploring new opportunities regarding work or using new knowledge and methods to do the task, which form an important basis for team innovation. The process of innovation requires intensive thinking and deep involvement, for which those dedicated high task conflict perceivers clearly have an advantage.
So, how can organizational teams cope with conflict asymmetry, based on these researches? Perhaps the first step for managers and employees is to realize the existence of conflict about conflict (Jehn et al., 2010) . More specifically, managers need to identify those high task conflict perceivers in the team, investigate the source of their psychological burden, and guide them to react to conflict positively. In this way, managers can prevent these valuable members from leaving the team due to unbearable stress resulting from unrecognized conflict asymmetry. Second, managers may want to tell their employees that communication problems can occur because of conflict asymmetry and therefore low task conflict perceivers should avoid ignorance, while high task conflict perceivers should avoid misinterpretations. Third, for individuals who are experiencing high task conflict, a way to resolve the negative affect is to step away from their perception and try to take a different perspective. More importantly, managers and individual members need to realize that conflict asymmetry is not always a bad thing and can bring them opportunities for challenging the current understanding of the task and generating innovative ideas.
Author information: Cheng Chen (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Human Resource Management & Organizational Behavior of the University of Groningen. She works with prof. dr. Bernard Nijstad and dr. Yingjie Yuan in the field of boundary spanning and team information processing.
 Jehn, K. A., Rispens, S., & Thatcher, S. M. (2010). The effects of conflict asymmetry on work group and individual outcomes. Academy of Management Journal, 53(3), 596-616.
 Wang, S., Homan, A. C., & Jehn, K. (2020). Individual task conflict asymmetry and peer ratings of member effectiveness. Small Group Research, 51(3), 402-426.
 Jehn, K. A., Rupert, J., & Nauta, A. (2006). The effects of conflict asymmetry on mediation outcomes: Satisfaction, work motivation and absenteeism. International Journal of Conflict Management.