Making a difference from differences : culturally heterogeneous workgroups need leaders with conflict and emotions management skills

Ayoko, Oluremi B. (2003). Making a difference from differences : culturally heterogeneous workgroups need leaders with conflict and emotions management skills PhD Thesis, School of Business, The University of Queensland.

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Author Ayoko, Oluremi B.
Thesis Title Making a difference from differences : culturally heterogeneous workgroups need leaders with conflict and emotions management skills
School, Centre or Institute School of Business
Institution The University of Queensland
Publication date 2003
Thesis type PhD Thesis
Supervisor Charmine Hartel
Victor Callan
Ashly Pinnington
Total pages 350
Collection year 2003
Language eng
Subjects L
350200 Business and Management
720400 Management and Productivity Issues
Formatted abstract
The workplace diversity literature suggests that diversity is linked to various advantages (higher levels of creativity, problem solving and innovation), but also various disadvantages (poorer levels of cohesion and social integration). Organisations are faced with the challenge of maximising the benefits and minimising the adverse effects of diversity on organisational performance. Studies in diversity, however, suggest that the potential benefits from diversity are rarely achieved. Also, the relationships among cultural diversity (race and ethnicity), communication, leadership and conflict are not fully understood at a conceptual level.

This thesis attempts to address these conceptual gaps in the literature. In this thesis, leadership is proposed as an intervening variable that sheds light on the relationship between diversity and outcomes. In particular, it is proposed that leaders who have the skills and capacity for effective conflict and emotions management are able to increase group cohesion and improve group processes and performance. Drawing on the communication, diversity, conflict and leadership literatures, over three studies the research develops and tests a model of leader attitudes and behaviours in conflict events in culturally heterogeneous workgroups.

Four dimensions of conflict events are examined: task conflict, social conflict, conflict duration, and conflict intensity. In addition, productive and destructive reactions to conflict are proposed as mediating variables between conflict events and groups' task, psychological and social outcomes. Leader pre-conflict stage (group emotional climate, group emotional management and group conflict management norms) is proposed to have a direct effect on conflict events and reactions to conflict, as well as a moderating effect on conflict events and conflict reactions. Similarly, leader intervention skills (leader technical, emotions and conflict management skills) are proposed to have direct effects on reactions to conflict events and groups' task, psychological and social outcomes as well as moderating effects on reactions to conflict and group outcomes. The variables described above are drawn from the existing literature and are combined to form a robust and comprehensive model of leader behaviours in conflict events in culturally heterogeneous workgroups.

A multi-method research design was used in collecting data for this research. Data were collected in three studies. Although, the current research is not a test of intergroup theories, Study 1 used CAT (a robust intergroup theory) as an initial guiding theoretical framework to explain the complexity of interactions in CHWs. In particular, the fundamental assumption for Study 1 was that communication for conflict (productive and destructive) and its management in Culturally Heterogeneous Workgroups (CHWs) will be marked not only by interpersonal, but also by intergroup salience. A multi-method research design (observations, interviews, self reports and survey) was used to examine the communicative processes, behaviours and strategies employed in the stimulation and management of productive and destructive conflict in CHWs. Data for Study 1 were collected in two stages. Participants for Stages 1 and 2 were undergraduates from different cultural backgrounds enrolled in degrees in a large public university. The student groups in Stage 1 worked on a major communication assignment. They were observed and their interactions were voice-recorded for a period of six weeks. In Stage 2, students worked in self-autonomous learning teams on a project. For Stage 2, group discussions and processes were observed and audio recorded and observation notes were taken. In a survey completed at the end of the semester, the same participants provided information on their perceptions of their group's effectiveness. Altogether, about 50 students participated in Study 1. Data from Study 1 were analysed using the CAT framework and a set of coding strategies developed from the theory to explore the theoretical links proposed from the literature for the current research.
Overall, the results of Study 1 showed that the use of explanation and checking of own and others' understanding was a major feature of productive conflict. Groups that engaged more in these strategies had more productive conflict, while speech interruptions emerged as a strategy leading to potential destructive conflict. In addition, groups where leaders emerged were better able to manage their discourse, especially as leaders assisted in reversing communication breakdowns and in achieving consensus on task processes.

The samples for Study 2 were six CHWs (that had been together for at least two years) from two large public organisations. Multiple qualitative methods (semi-structured interviews, participant and non-participant observations as well as voice recordings of group meetings) were employed in data collection. Specifically, the types, amount, frequency, duration, intensity, stages and effects of conflict on groups' task and social outcomes were studied. Linguistic text analysis, content ratings, and content analysis were used as analytical tools. Results from Study 2 revealed that, as predicted, the triggers of conflict were related to task and interpersonal issues. In addition, a new conflict trigger, open office space, was discovered. Different viewpoints regarding the use of space and the inability to retreat from exposure to others were found to be major triggers of conflict in CHWs. Although avoidance was the strategy the majority of the leaders used in managing conflict and its consequent emotions, Study 2 identified that some leaders of CHWs briefed new group members for possible conflict in the group. Based on these findings, the theory was extended regarding the types of conflicts emerging in CHWs.

The final parts of the thesis, especially Study 3, involved developing further the theory concerning conflict and groups' task and social outcomes, and the initial theoretical framework concerning leaders' impact on conflict and its outcomes in CHWs was refined. Specifically, a pre-conflict stage as established by the leader, was proposed as affecting conflict events in CHWs. In addition, leader conflict management and emotions management skills were proposed to impact upon group member's reactions to conflict and group outcomes.

Study 3 employed a quantitative survey method to test the predictive ability, generalisability and the structural relationships between the variables depicted in the theoretical model. Study 3 refined the findings from Studies 1 and 2. A total of 660 respondents in 122 workgroups from seven organisations participated in this study. Hypotheses were tested using multiple hierarchical regression analysis. Study 3 showed that the model, derived from Studies 1 and 2, has the capacity to predict the hypothesised variables. In particular, conflict events directly affected group members' and leaders' reactions to conflict. Reactions to conflict impacted upon some group's task, psychological and social outcomes. Support was provided for the reactions to conflict as mediating the relationship between conflict events and group outcomes. Although there was no significant direct relationship between leader intervention and reactions to conflict, there was evidence to support a moderating effect of leader intervention on reaction to conflict and group outcomes. In addition, a significant direct effect of leader intervention on group's outcomes was established. The pre-conflict stage had a direct significant effect on groups' reactions to conflict. It partially moderated the relationship between groups' conflict events and reactions to conflict.

Evidence from Study 3 supported the prediction that communication openness would be positively related to productive reactions to conflict. Communication openness was revealed as a moderator of the relationship between conflict events and reaction to conflict. The results were largely consistent with the theoretical framework as represented by the model. In summary, the current research has made at least five significant contributions. Firstly, it makes a theoretical contribution to the communication literature, as it the first time that CAT variables and coding framework have been employed to study conflict in workgroups. The findings from Study 1 demonstrate that CAT coding framework is useful to study and analyse communication strategies and behaviours related to conflict and its management in CHWs. Secondly, the discovery of office space as a trigger of conflict in CHWs, expands our knowledge of conflict in these workgroups and, by extension, conflict theory and literature. Thirdly, the research reveals that leadership is an intervening process variable between diversity, conflict and group outcomes. Fourthly, it makes a methodological contribution. The present research is the first systematic quantitative study that differentiates between the effects of conflict events and reactions to conflict on group outcomes. Specifically, reactions to conflict (not the conflict events per se) are the main drivers of the outcomes in diverse workgroups. In addition, the results from Studies 1, 2 and 3 highlight the usefulness of data triangulation (convergence methods) to understand the intricacy of conflict and its management in CHWs. Finally, the project contributes to management practice by showing that leaders with skills in conflict and emotions management can have a significant impact on the management of conflict events and reaction (productive and destructive) to conflict, as well as the group outcomes of diverse workgroups.

Keywords: Culturally heterogeneous workgroups, diversity leadership, diversity management, leader behaviours and attitudes, pre-conflict stage, reactions to conflict, communication openness, communication accommodation theory.
Keyword Diversity in the workplace

Document type: Thesis
Collection: UQ Theses (RHD) - UQ staff and students only
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Created: Fri, 24 Aug 2007, 18:07:01 EST