This thesis examines the extent to which supervisor third-party responses to workgroup conflict are associated with a sense of justice and employee strain. Workgroup conflict is a complex construct with its potency as a work stressor being influenced by organizational contexts and hierarchies where power, roles, and behavioural norms exist. Furthermore, workgroup conflict occurs in a social context where it can be influenced by a number of parties including other team members, but more importantly, the supervisor. The studies presented in this thesis contribute new knowledge to the occupational stress, conflict management, and organisational justice literatures by focusing on group-level characteristics; in particular, the supervisor’s role in responding as a third-party to workgroup conflict, and the extent to which the climate induced by the supervisor’s third-party conflict management style (CMS) predicts employees’ perceptions of justice and strain.
The first manuscript in this thesis presents an integrative framework of supervisor responses to workgroup conflict outlining that supervisors can utilise an effective, or ineffective, process of conflict identification, assessment, and taking action at organisational and/or individual-levels. Of particular interest in this thesis is the action-taking component, with a focus on the climate induced by how the supervisor intervenes, or their third-party CMS. The theoretical model presented in this chapter proposes that the positive main effects of workgroup conflict on employee strain will be buffered (or reduced) by each of the positive supervisor CMS climates (high collaborating, low yielding, and low forcing). Further, it is proposed that these positive supervisor responses to workgroup conflict will be perceived by employees as more just; thus, justice climate is predicted to have a mediating effect. The two empirical studies that follow examine these specific issues; the main and moderating effects of supervisor CMS climate and the mediating effect of justice climate.
The second manuscript empirically tests whether supervisor CMS climates have main effects on anxiety/depression, workplace bullying, and serious thoughts about making a claim for workers’ compensation for a stress-related illness. Further, using multi-level modelling, this study tests the cross-level moderating effect of supervisor CMS climate on the individual-level association between relationship conflict and employee outcomes. Analyses were conducted on a sample of 401 employees nested in 69 workgroups drawn from a government department responsible for employment services. Results revealed that high supervisor collaborating climate was associated with low anxiety/depression, workplace bullying and claims thoughts, and high supervisor yielding and forcing climates were related to high employee outcomes. As expected, negative supervisor CMS climates (low collaborating, high yielding, high forcing) exacerbated the positive effects of relationship conflict on anxiety/depression and workplace bullying. Unexpectedly, however, positive supervisor CMS climates (high collaborating, low yielding, low forcing) also exacerbated the positive effects of relationship conflict on strain. A reverse-buffering explanation is consistent with these results. Nevertheless, these interactions revealed that positive supervisor climates had greatest effect in reducing anxiety/depression and bullying when relationship conflict was low. Overall, this pattern of results highlights the importance of positive climates being induced by the supervisor before relationship conflict becomes high; otherwise positive supervisor CMS climates have no greater discernible efficacy than negative supervisor CMS climates.
For the outcome variable of claims thoughts, a different pattern emerged in which the negative supervisor CMS climates had the predicted stress-exacerbating effects and positive supervisor CMS climates had the predicted stress-buffering effects. These findings suggest that positive supervisor CMS climates were more effective in reducing employee claims thoughts when relationship conflict was high. By way of interpretation, it is proposed that positive supervisor CMS climates may keep functional mechanisms for conflict resolution open, making it less likely that employees consider using claims processes for seeking resolution and voicing dissatisfaction.
The third manuscript tests the multi-level effects of procedural justice (PJ) climate as a mediator between supervisor CMS climate and employee strain. Questionnaires were distributed to 420 employees nested in 61 workgroups in a rail transport organisation. Multi-level SEM revealed that workgroups with high supervisor collaborating climate reported lower sleep disturbance, job dissatisfaction, and action-taking cognitions. Workgroups with high supervisor yielding and forcing climates reported higher levels of employee strain indicators. Consistent with a full mediation model, significant indirect effects of supervisor collaborating climate, through the mediator of PJ climate, were found for the outcomes of sleep disturbance and job dissatisfaction. Similarly, significant indirect effects of supervisor yielding climate, through the mediator of PJ climate, were found for the outcomes of sleep disturbance, job dissatisfaction, and action-taking cognitions.
Overall, these findings support the notion that supervisor CMS climate is related to employee strain, indicating that membership of some workgroups is more or less hazardous depending on the supervisor CMS climate. This research provides important new knowledge about the group-level nature of supervisor CMS and its role in predicting employee strain. Use of this knowledge can enable supervisors to respond to conflict in more positive ways, thereby reducing the toll on employees and organisations.