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The psychosocial costs of conflict


management styles
Greg A. Chung-Yan and Christin Moeller

382
Received 4 December 2009
Accepted 28 January 2010

Department of Psychology, University of Windsor, Windsor, Canada


Abstract
Purpose The purpose of this paper is to examine the interactive effect of interpersonal conflict at
work and adopting an integrating/compromising conflict style on workers psychosocial wellbeing.
Design/methodology/approach A total of 311 employed young adults completed an online
questionnaire.
Findings Moderated hierarchical multiple regression analyses support the hypothesis that
integrating/compromising interacts with interpersonal conflict at work to predict psychosocial strain.
Specifically, it was found that integrating/compromising is related to psychosocial strain in a U-shaped
fashion when work conflict is high. Although a moderate degree of integrating/compromising is
psychosocially beneficial for workers and can buffer the negative impact of work conflict, beyond a
certain point, integrating/compromising is associated with an increase in psychosocial strain when
work conflict is high.
Research limitations/implications The results of the study suggest that investigations of
conflict styles should focus not only on managing the occurrence of conflict or resolving it when it
does occur but also on the psychosocial costs of adopting particular conflict styles. The data are
cross-sectional; therefore, inferences about causality are limited.
Originality/value The study is one of the few to empirically test the psychosocial costs of
adopting particular conflict styles. In addition, compared with similar studies, more complex
relationships (i.e. nonlinear) between the variables are assessed.
Keywords Conflict management, Stress
Paper type Research paper

International Journal of Conflict


Management
Vol. 21 No. 4, 2010
pp. 382-399
q Emerald Group Publishing Limited
1044-4068
DOI 10.1108/10444061011079930

Interpersonal conflict at work is one of the most prominent work-related sources of


stress for employees (Spector and Bruk-Lee, 2008). In fact, the experience of
interpersonal conflict at work has not only been associated with organizational
outcomes such as absenteeism (Giebels and Janssen, 2005) and decreased performance
(De Dreu and Weingart, 2003), but also with various individual consequences,
including depression (Spector and Jex, 1998), anxiety (Spector et al., 2000) and burnout
(van Dierendonck and Mevissen, 2002).
Individuals may draw on a number of behaviors, or conflict management styles, in
response to the interpersonal conflict they encounter at work. Research evidence
suggests that active and cooperative behaviors, namely problem-solving (alternatively
referred to as integrating) and compromising, are generally the most effective conflict
management styles in resolving conflictual social interactions (Rahim, 2002). Despite
considerable research investigating conflict styles effectiveness in resolving conflicts,
studies investigating the extent to which the use of conflict styles affects individual
health and well-being are lacking. The present study aims to address this oversight by
examining the psychosocial costs associated with conflict styles that are considered to
be most effective in dealing with work conflict, namely integrating and compromising.

Specifically, this study drew upon theories of individual agency and communion
(McCreary and Korabik, 1994) to explore how varying degrees of integrating and
compromising may differently affect individuals reports of social dysfunction and
anxiety/depression.

Costs of conflict
management
styles

Interpersonal conflict at work


Given that most jobs require some degree of interaction with other people,
interpersonal conflict is considered to be both an inevitable and intrinsic characteristic
of working (Canary et al., 2001; Dijkstra et al., 2005b). Interpersonal conflict at work
generally refers to disagreements among individuals as a result of perceived
oppositions about respective interests or goals (Barki and Hartwick, 2004; Thomas,
1992; Wall and Callister, 1995). The experience of such disagreements among workers
has been linked to a number of individual and occupational consequences (De Dreu and
Beersma, 2005; Fox et al., 2001; Spector and Bruk-Lee, 2008; Spector and Jex, 1998). For
example, a recent meta-analysis of work teams found that the experience of
interpersonal conflict was significantly negatively correlated with job satisfaction and
team performance (De Dreu and Weingart, 2003). Similarly, Frone (2000) found that
interpersonal conflict with superiors was associated with decreased job satisfaction
and organizational commitment; and increased turnover intentions. Significant
positive relationships have also been found between interpersonal conflict at work and
counterproductive work behaviors, including sabotage, aggression, hostility and theft
(Chen and Spector, 1992), as well as absenteeism (Giebels and Janssen, 2005). In terms
of individual health and well-being, the experience of interpersonal conflict is related to
depression (Frone, 2000; Spector and Jex, 1998), anxiety and frustration (Spector et al.,
2000), general mental health (Dijkstra et al., 2005a; Dijkstra et al., 2005b), and burnout
(van Dierendonck and Mevissen, 2002).

383

Conflict management
Conflict management involves individual behavioral reactions in response to perceived
interpersonal disagreements and individuals may draw upon a number of conflict
management styles in response to the interpersonal conflict they encounter at work.
Such conflict management styles are generally not considered to be fixed personality
traits per se, but somewhat malleable products of individual differences and situational
contexts (Ogilvie and Kidder, 2008). Conflict management research has generated a
number of conflict style models. Blake and Mouton (1964) first introduced a
two-dimensional model of conflict management; namely, the managerial grid. Others,
including Thomas (1976) and Pruitt (1983), later expanded upon this taxonomy. In a
review of conflict style classifications, Canary (2003) suggests that the common
dimensions underlying many of these conflict management models are
cooperation-competition and directness-indirectness. Cooperation-competition is
defined as the extent that one wants to join resources to achieve mutually
beneficial outcomes (Canary, 2003, p. 528). Conversely, directness-indirectness is
considered to be the extent to which one person explicitly (v. implicitly) engages the
other person. Regardless of the conflict style model considered, several analogous
conflict management styles can be derived from the combination of these dimensions;
namely, integrating, yielding, avoiding, forcing, and compromising (Thomas, 1992).

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An integrating conflict management style (also: problem-solving) is characterized


by a cooperative and unequivocal effort to attain both ones own and others objectives
(De Dreu et al., 2004). This style includes an open exchange of information, the
commitment to a mutually satisfying resolution, and an exploration of agreeable
alternatives (De Dreu et al., 2004; Rahim, 2002). In contrast, yielding involves an
emphasis on satisfying others interests at the expense of ones own, thus conforming
to the desires and wants of the other party by obliging to their requests as well as
offering unlimited assurances and assistance (De Dreu et al., 2004; Rahim, 2002). At the
other extreme, forcing (also: contending) involves a rigid stance and assertions of ones
own interests and needs irrespective of the other partys needs. Individuals using this
style aim to dominate, occasionally with the use of various intimidation tactics (De
Dreu et al., 2004; Rahim, 2002). Avoiding involves withdrawing from or evading the
issues at hand. This style is characterized by a disregard for both ones own and others
needs, interests and goals by changing the topic and ignoring or suppressing the
matter (De Dreu et al., 2004; Rahim, 2002). Finally, a compromising conflict
management style encompasses the relinquishment of certain needs and interests,
while maintaining others, by both parties to achieve an agreeable middle-ground
(Rahim, 2002).
Canarys (2003) review of the conflict management literature led to the conclusion
that competitive behaviors involving a low drive to reach a mutually agreeable
resolution (i.e. avoiding and forcing) are generally ineffective in resolving
disagreements. Indeed, research findings support the perceived effectiveness and
benefits of cooperative and active conflict management, particularly for the integrating
style (e.g., De Dreu et al., 2003; Friedman et al., 2000). An investigation of workgroups,
for example, showed that, compared to forcing or avoiding, the use of integrating was
associated with more effective decision making among group members (Kuhn and
Poole, 2000). Similarly, a study of conflict management behaviors among trolley car
drivers indicated that the use of avoiding and forcing styles was associated with
decreased professional efficacy (van Dierendonck and Mevissen, 2002). In some
situations, the use of forcing, avoiding, or yielding styles may have short-term benefits
compared integrating and may even improve the effectiveness of an integrative conflict
management approach when combined (e.g., Munduate et al., 1999). However,
researchers suggest that, overall, an integrating conflict management style with an
emphasis on mutual gains is generally the most effective and long-lasting approach;
improving interpersonal communication and social interaction, thereby also reducing
the likelihood of future conflict episodes (Rahim, 2002; Rahim et al., 2000).
Up to this point, we have discussed the efficacy of conflict management styles in
terms of conflict resolution; however, peoples response to conflict can also have
consequences for their health and well-being. For example, behaviors in response to
conflict such as restraining the display of anger or excessively expressing anger
have been linked to heart disease (Siegman, 1994), eating disorders (van den Broucke,
1995), and decreased immune function over time (Kiecolt-Glaser et al., 1993). Because
avoiding and yielding fail to satisfy individuals conflict goals by evading the conflict
issues or unquestioningly obliging to the others requests, these conflict management
styles may adversely impact health and well-being by creating a sense of frustration or
incompetence (van Dierendonck and Mevissen, 2002). These negative consequences
may be prolonged by an avoidant approach as the issues of conflict continue to be

side-stepped and unsolved. Although forcing satisfies ones own objectives initially, it
may have considerable adverse consequences for future social interactions, such as
increased anxiety and trepidation in anticipation of future communications (van
Dierendonck and Mevissen, 2002). Conversely, the mutually satisfying solutions
attained through active and cooperative conflict management styles (i.e. integrating
and compromising) may result in greater confidence and sense of accomplishment, and
in turn, improved health and well-being.
Unfortunately, research directly investigating the relationship between conflict
management styles and employee health and well-being are few (De Dreu and
Beersma, 2005; De Dreu et al., 2004; Dijkstra et al., 2005b; Spector and Bruk-Lee, 2008).
Furthermore, studies that have examined the relationship between conflict
management styles and worker health and well-being have emphasized physical
symptoms, whereas psychosocial reactions have gone relatively unexamined.
Nevertheless, these investigations on the effectiveness of conflict management styles
do provide indirect evidence of the consequences to the health and well-being of
employees who enact certain conflict management styles. In their studies of Dutch
employees, for example, De Dreu et al. (2003) found that the use of yielding, avoiding,
and forcing in response to interpersonal conflict was associated with increased somatic
complaints, such as headaches and fatigue. In turn, integrating was related to better
physical well-being among employees, albeit in only one of the samples investigated
(De Dreu et al., 2003).
The present study extends the research on workplace conflict by exploring the
psychosocial costs associated with enacting certain conflict management styles. Up
until now, research has focussed on the effectiveness of conflict management styles
rather than on the personal consequences to the enactors of these conflict management
styles. This study specifically looks at integrating and compromising because they are
generally regarded as the most effective approaches to dealing with interpersonal
conflict and yet, depending on the outcome variable of interest, an effective conflict
style in terms of conflict resolution may have a negative impact on the well-being of the
individual.
In addition to investigating the emotional cost of using an integrating and
compromising conflict style, we also investigate whether the relationships between
conflict styles and psychosocial well-being are nonlinear. Informing our approach is
McCreary and Korabiks (1994) work on the positive and negative aspects of agency
and communion. Agency develops from a persons attempt to individuate him or
herself and refers to qualities such as instrumentality, dominance, competence and goal
attainment (Abele and Wojciszke, 2007). Communion develops from a persons attempt
to integrate the self in a larger social unit by caring for others and refers to qualities
such as a focus on cooperativeness and the well-being of others (Abele and Wojciszke,
2007). Abele and Wojciszke (2007) distinguish between agency and communion more
fundamentally by a concern for self versus a concern for others, respectively.
According to McCreary and Korabiks (1994) framework, it is undesirable to have
either too much or too little of communion or agency: Too much communion is
associated with overly obliging and nurturing behaviors, whereas too little communion
results in cold and antisocial behaviors. In turn, too much agency results in autocratic
and competitive behaviors, whereas too little agency is associated with passivity and
submissiveness. Fritz and Helgeson (1998) found that although communion is linked to

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desirable interpersonal outcomes such as the ability to access social support and a high
relationship satisfaction, there is a point at which too much communion becomes
detrimental. Overly focusing on relationships with others at the expense of the self
referred to as unmitigated communion is linked to negative outcomes such as
depression, self-neglect, and poor physical health. Similarly, although agency is related
to high self-esteem and social competence (Saragovi et al., 1997), unmitigated agency
results in extreme self-reliance and is related to drug and alcohol use, failure to seek
medical help, and a susceptibility to heart disease (Helgeson, 1994).
Drawing upon McCreary and Korabiks (1994) theory of agency and communion, we
hypothesize that when work conflict is present there is a curvilinear relationship
between integrating/compromising and psychosocial well-being. Specifically, although
integrating/compromising will result in positive psychosocial consequences when
managing conflict, we predict that it is also not desirable to be too high or too low in
integration/compromise as it is akin to unmitigated agency and communion. Thus, the
most positive psychosocial outcomes should occur at moderate levels of
integration/compromise. Because conflict styles are only relevant when conflict is
present, we predict that there is no relationship between integration/compromise and
psychosocial well-being in the absence of conflict.
H1. An integrative/compromising conflict style moderates the relationship between
interpersonal conflict at work and the psychosocial strains of social dysfunction
(1a) and anxiety/depression (1b). Specifically, a U-shaped relationship between
integrating/compromising and psychosocial strain is expected when
interpersonal conflict at work is high. When interpersonal conflict is low, a
relationship is not expected between integrating/compromising and
psychosocial strain.
Methodology
Participants and procedures
A total of 311 employed young adults who were enrolled in an introductory psychology
course from a mid-sized Canadian university completed an online questionnaire for
course credit. Three participants reported not understanding some of the questions and
were removed from the final analysis. Three-hundred and eight people (221 women, 87
men) were included in the final analyses. Participants ages ranged from 17 to 38
(M 19:37, SD 1:93) and job tenures ranged from 0.5 to 92 months (M 25:66,
SD 16:75). The jobs held by participants represented all the broad skill types defined
in the National Occupational Classification (Human Resources Development Canada,
1993).
Measures
Integrating/compromising conflict styles at work. Integrating and compromising
conflict styles used at work was measured using a five-item questionnaire adapted
from Cronshaw and Jethmalanis (2005) behavior description structured interview
measuring managerial adaptive skills. Items (see Appendix) were created by
modifying the performance standard behavioral anchors attached to the interview
questions related to conflict management. On a seven-point, Likert-type scale (strongly
disagree to strongly agree), two items assessed compromising behaviors and three
assessed integrating behaviors. A weighted average of the compromising and

integrating items was calculated to form a composite score. Higher scores indicate the
use of more compromising and integrating behaviors. This measure was created to be
specifically applicable to a work environment. The Cronbachs alpha was 0.72.
Interpersonal conflict at work. Interpersonal conflict was assessed with Spector and
Jexs (1998) four-item Interpersonal Conflict at Work Scale. Respondents were asked
how often each item occurs to them at work. Each item is measured on a five-point
(rarely to very often), Likert-type scale. Higher scores indicate more frequent conflict
with others at work. Example item: How often do you get into arguments with others
at work? The Cronbachs alpha was 0.82.
Social dysfunction. Social dysfunction was assessed with 4 items from the GHQ-12, a
revised version of the General Health Questionnaire (Banks et al., 1980). The GHQ is a
general measure of minor psychological distress, with social dysfunction being one of
two subdimensions of the GHQ-12 identified by Kalliath et al. (2004). Each item was
measured on a 7-point (not at all to all of the time), Likert-type scale. Higher mean
scores indicate higher strain. Example item: Over the past year, how often have you
felt capable of making decisions about things? (reverse scored). The Cronbachs alpha
was 0.74.
Anxiety/depression. Anxiety/depression was assessed with four items from the
GHQ-12 and is the second of the two subdimensions of the GHQ-12 identified by
Kalliath et al. (2004). Each item was measured on a seven-point (not at all to all of the
time), Likert-type scale. Higher mean scores indicate higher strain. Example item:
Over the past year, how often have you felt you couldnt overcome your difficulties?
The Cronbachs alpha was 0.86.
Demographics. Questions about participants age, sex, and job tenure were included
in the questionnaire. A number of studies have suggested that the use of conflict
management styles may vary across genders. Specifically, research evidence shows
that women tend to report using more integrating and compromising styles compared
to men (Holt and De Vore, 2005; Korabik et al., 1993). Further, research indicates that
the experience of depression, anxiety and other psychological strains may vary by
gender, age, and job tenure (e.g., Catano et al., 2007; Davis et al., 1999; Jorm et al., 2005;
Leach et al., 2008). Given these prior research findings, age, gender, and tenure status
were treated as covariates in the present study, allowing for comparisons to this
literature. Participants were also asked to classify their job according to skill type
definitions in the National Occupational Classification (Human Resources
Development Canada, 1993).
Results
Descriptive statistics and correlations among the study variables are presented in
Table I.
The anticipated bivariate relationships are shown between conflict at work and the
psychological strain measures of social dysfunction (r 0:16) and anxiety/depression
(r 0:20). These relationships, although significant, are nonetheless moderate and
support our approach to search for moderation effects.
To test the main hypothesis, two moderated hierarchical multiple regressions
(MHMRs) were performed to test for interactions between interpersonal conflict at
work and integrating/compromising on social dysfunction and anxiety/depression.
The data were screened for univariate and multivariate outliers. Not surprisingly, the

Costs of conflict
management
styles
387

Sex
Ageb
Tenureb
Conflict at work
Integrating/compromising
Integrating/compromising2c
Social dysfunction
Anxiety/depression
b

0.44
232.46
25.54
1.93
5.40
0.56
2.56
3.08

M
0.90
23.21
16.85
0.77
0.75
0.78
0.91
1.19

SD

2 0.05
2 0.06
2 0.10
0.13 *
2 0.03
0.11
0.09

0.16 * *
2 0.02
0.06
2 0.03
2 0.02
2 0.05

0.18 * *
0.08
0.00
0.02
20.07

0.82
20.18 * *
0.05
0.16 * *
0.21 * * *

0.72
2 0.17 * *
2 0.15 * *
2 0.11

0.06
0.11

388
0.74
0.69 * * *

0.86

Note: n 308; Men 2 1, Women 1; variable is measured in months; squared variable calculated from the centered variable; Italicized numbers
on the diagonal are Cronbach Alpha coefficients; *p , 0.05; * *p , 0.01, * * *p , 0.001

1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
6.
7.
8.

Table I.
Descriptive statistics and
correlations between
variables

Variable

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interpersonal conflict at work variable was positively skewed and had three univariate
outliers (i.e. z . 3.29). The analyses were performed with and without this variable
log-transformed. The patterning of results was the same in both cases. Only the
analyses using the untransformed variable will be reported so as to retain the original
meaning and interpretability of the scale. No multivariate outliers were detected.
Consistent with Cohen et al. (2003), the predictor variables were mean centered; with
product and squared terms created from the centered variables. The covariates of age,
sex and job tenure were entered in the first step. The linear effects of interpersonal
conflict at work and integrating/compromising were entered in the second step. The
squared integrating/compromising terms were entered in the third step. The linear
interaction terms were entered in the fourth step. The linear by curvilinear interaction
terms were entered in the final step.
The results of the MHMR analyses are presented in Tables II and III. The
hypothesized interaction between integrating/compromising on psychosocial strain
was supported. As predicted, the interaction between interpersonal conflict at work
and integrating/compromising (Table II, step 5, CW IC2) was significantly related to
social dysfunction (b 0:17, p , 0.05). The linear by curvilinear interaction term also
explained an additional 1 percent of the variance ( p , 0.05) over and above the linear
interaction term (step 4).
Similarly, the interaction between interpersonal conflict at work and
integrating/compromising (Table III, step 5, CW IC2) was significantly related to
anxiety/depression (b 0:16, p , 0.05). The linear by curvilinear interaction term
explained an additional 1 percent of the variance ( p , 0.05) over and above the linear
interaction term (step 4).

Variables entered
Step 1
Sexa
Ageb
Tenureb

0.11
20.02
0.02

0.14 *
0.00
0.01

0.14 *
0.00
0.01

0.14 *
2 0.14 *

Step 2
Conflict at Work (CW)
Integrating/Compromising (IC)
Step 3
IC2
Step 4
CW IC
Step 5
CW IC2
Overall R 2
DR 2

Steps
3

0.01

0.06 * *
0.05

0.13 *
0.00
0.01

0.13 *
2 0.01
0.02

0.14 *
20.13 *

0.17 * *
20.13 *

0.09
2 0.11

0.04

0.06

0.05

0.09

0.16 *

0.07 * *
0.01

0.17 *
0.08 * *
0.01 *

0.06 * *
0.00

Notes: The displayed coefficients are beta weights at each step; a Men 21; Women 1; b Variable
is measured in months; *p , 0.05; * *p , 0.01; * * *p , 0.001

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Table II.
Moderated hierarchical
multiple regression
analysis for interaction
between interpersonal
conflict at work
and integrating/
compromising on social
dysfunction

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Variables entered

390

Step 1
Sexa
Ageb
Tenureb

1
0.09
2 0.04
2 0.06

Step 2
Conflict at Work (CW)
Integrating/Compromising (IC)

0.11 *
2 0.02
2 0.09

0.11 *
2 0.03
0.08

0.23 * * *
2 0.07

0.22 * * *
2 0.06

0.25 * * *
2 0.05

0.18 *
2 0.04

0.09

0.01

0.12 *
2 0.02
2 0.09

Step 4
CW IC
Step 5
CW IC2
Overall R 2
DR 2

0.12 *
2 0.02
2 0.09

Step 3
IC2
Table III.
Moderated hierarchical
multiple regression
analysis for interaction
between interpersonal
conflict at work
and integrating/
compromising on
anxiety/depression

Steps
3

0.07 * * *
0.06 * * *

0.08 * * *
0.01

0.11

0.10

0.10

0.16 *

0.08 * * *
0.01

0.16 *
0.10 * * *
0.01 *

Notes: The displayed coefficients are beta weights at each step; a Men 21; Women 1; bVariable
is measured in months; *p , 0.05; * *p , 0.01; * * *p , 0.001

To illustrate the extent to which the interactions conform to the predicted pattern of
relationships, surface plots of the regression equations are depicted in Figure 1 a (social
dysfunction) and Figure 2 a (anxiety/depression). To make the figures easier to interpret,
they are also accompanied by cross-sectional plots at both high (1 SD), the mean, and
low (21 SD) levels of interpersonal conflict at work and integrating/compromising.
To avoid complicated descriptions of the relationships between variables, when
describing the interactions, we will refer to high, moderate, and low levels of the
variables, but it should be kept in mind that these are continuous variables and the
relationships are nondiscrete.
As expected, the extent to which people engage in an integrating and compromising
conflict style determines the extent to which they experience psychosocial strain when
encountering frequent interpersonal work conflict. Specifically, although
integrating/compromising is negatively related to psychosocial strain (Figure 1 b
and Figure 2 b) when work conflict is low, integrating/compromising is related to
psychosocial strain in a U-shaped fashion when work conflict is high. The
U-relationship demonstrates that some degree of integrating/compromising is
beneficial for individuals regardless of the amount of conflict experienced. But
beyond a moderate level of integrating/compromising, integrating/compromising is
associated with an increase in psychosocial strain when work conflict is high. In other
words, integrating/compromising can be either beneficial or detrimental to an
individuals psychosocial well-being depending on the frequency with which they
experience work conflict; beneficial when work conflict is low, detrimental when work
conflict is high.
Another way to interpret the influence of integrating/compromising is to look at the
partial buffering effect that less integrating/compromising has on the negative impact

Costs of conflict
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391

Figure 1.
Interaction between
interpersonal conflict at
work and
integrating/compromising
on social dysfunction

of work conflict (Figure 1 c and Figure 2 c). A buffering effect is a specific type of
interaction, usually assessed in coping and stress research. Specifically, a coping style
has a buffering effect when the negative impact of an environmental stressor is
reduced in the presence of the coping style (i.e. moderator/buffer). Thus, at low levels of
the coping style, there is a relationship between the stressor and strain but at high
levels of the coping style, this relationship is reduced or disappears. The results of this
study show that at moderate to high levels of work conflict, the positive relationship

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392

Figure 2.
Interaction between
interpersonal conflict at
work and
integrating/compromising
on anxiety/depression

between work conflict and psychosocial strain is reduced as integrating/compromising


declines. Thus, less integrating/compromising serves a protective function for
individuals when work conflict is high. As this is a disordinal interaction, the buffering
effect is not consistent across all levels of work conflict. Integrating/compromising
positively impacts individuals at moderate to low levels of work conflict, such that
people who are integrating and compromising experience less psychosocial stain
compared to those who integrate and compromise less.

Discussion
Investigations of conflict style are usually interested in determining what types of
conflict styles are most effective at resolving interpersonal conflict. Rather than
investigating the effectiveness of conflict styles, this study investigated the
psychosocial strain experienced by people who engage in a type of conflict
management style. The focus was on those who engaged to a lesser or greater extent
in an integrating/compromising conflict style as these are generally considered to be
the most effective at managing conflict (Rahim, 2002; Rahim et al., 2000). The results of
this study support the hypothesis that people who engage in a high degree of
integration and compromise when dealing with conflict are more likely to experience
psychosocial strain in the presence of interpersonal conflict at work. The pattern of this
relationship was found to be the same for both psychosocial strain indicators: social
dysfunction and anxiety/depression. However, the nonlinear analyses also show that
when interpersonal conflict is not high (i.e. low to moderate levels of interpersonal
conflict; see Figure 1 b and Figure 2 b) integrating/compromising is negatively related
to psychosocial strain. These findings parallel work on agency and communion. It
seems that low and high levels of integrating/compromising are similar to the negative
effects associated with unmitigated agency and communion. Thus, from a health and
well-being point of view, it is most beneficial to have a balance between a concern for
self and a concern for others.
The results of this study suggest that investigations of conflict styles should focus
not only on managing the occurrence of conflict or resolving it when it does occur
but also on the psychosocial costs of adopting particular conflict styles. This, in turn
might lead to an understanding of the factors that influence the conflict styles to which
people gravitate. It is possible that over time, if certain conflict management styles
continually lead to negative psychosocial consequences, individuals would choose
different conflict styles even if they are less effective in solving the problem because it
is less psychosocially taxing. This would also be affected by individual differences. In
particular, it is likely that personality plays a role in the type of conflict styles that
people adopt. Wood and Bell (2008), for example, found that personality characteristics,
namely agreeableness and extraversion, significantly predicted individuals preference
for using integrating (high agreeableness), yielding (high agreeableness and low
extraversion), avoiding (low extraversion), and forcing (high extraversion and low
agreeableness) to manage interpersonal conflict.
In a similar vein, Ogilvie and Kidders (2007) review of negotiator styles very
similar to, and informed by, the work on conflict management styles identifies
individual differences as likely influencing the negotiation style people choose. Of the
individual differences they identify, personality, culture and social values orientation
have the most theoretical and empirical support. Thus, the influence of individual
differences in terms of the conflict management styles people adopt and how their
behavior is subsequently affected by the psychosocial consequences of using conflict
management styles should be further explored. At a macro level, conflict management
should thus be thought of as a transactional process rather than an immutable set of
behaviors people use in response to conflict.
Although understanding whether a conflict management style leads to satisfactory
conflict resolution is obviously an important concern, this study shows that the
psychosocial costs of using certain conflict management styles are also important to

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consider. Such psychosocial consequences may not only negatively affect the
long-term health and well-being of workers, but also might have secondary negative
effects on organizations such as increases in absenteeism and turnover.
Limitations
The majority of participants were women (72 percent) and relatively young (M age
19 years), therefore, the results may not generalize equally to men and women or older
workers. However, in terms of the unequal sex ratio, this concern is mitigated because
the effect of sex was covaried out in the analysis and the sample was large. Caution
should be taken when generalizing to older workers because it may be that the
experience of older workers could affect both the conflict style they adopt as well as
how they perceive conflict such that they are more inured to conflict. Alternatively,
older workers might become more frustrated by trying to compromise if it proves
ineffective over time.
A possible concern is that this study relied on self-report measures. However,
self-reports reflect individual perceptions that are considered to be important
mediating mechanisms in stress research (French and Kahn, 1962) and that may have a
more direct impact on behavior than more objective measures (Spector and Jex, 1998).
Furthermore, individuals have been found to provide accurate reports of their ability
levels (Atwater et al., 1998). Nevertheless, the exclusive use of self-report
questionnaires may also lead to concerns over common-method bias (Spector and
Brannick, 1995). However, although common-method bias may artificially inflate
bivariate correlations, they do not create artifactual interactions and may in fact
attenuate true interactions (Evans, 1985). Finally, the cross-sectional methodology of
the study does not address causation or the possible reciprocal influence that
psychosocial strain has on subsequent attempts at dealing with conflict. Nevertheless,
the theoretical basis for the study and supporting empirical research in other related
areas such as agency and communion give confidence that the causal linkages are
correctly specified.
People are also more likely to report their conflict style as cooperative (i.e.
collaborative compromising and accommodative) than avoiding or competitive
(Thomas and Pondy, 1977), therefore, there may be a concern that social desirability is
operating. However, this tendency is not likely to affect reports of psychological strain
in the same manner, nor is it likely to create artifactual interactive findings that are the
focus of this study. Nevertheless, the influence of social desirability on reports of
conflict styles cannot entirely be ruled out.
An integrating/compromising conflict style likely affects the onset and frequency of
work conflict; there is a modest bivariate correlation between collaboration/integration
and interpersonal conflict at work, r 20:18, p , 0.01. Therefore, a possible
alternative explanation for the results is that because people with a more
integrating/compromising style are less likely to experience conflict, they have come
to expect less conflict and are consequently more upset when they experience conflict
because it runs counter to their expectations. This hypothesis cannot be completely
accounted for with the available data. Future longitudinal research is necessary to
explore this possibility. Although it would not contradict our conclusions, it would
suggest the well-being is not only dependant on conflict styles, but that the effect of
conflict styles might be mediated by their effectiveness in reducing conflict.

Implications and future research


Future research should seek to gain a better understanding of those who have a
propensity to engage in certain types of conflict management styles. To date, conflict
research and practice have emphasized the investigation and instruction of the most
effective conflict-resolution behaviors. Nevertheless, this focus has meant that the
effects on the psychosocial well-being of individuals who engage in certain types of
conflict styles have gone unexamined. Although conflict styles have a significant
impact on how people experience conflict, there are many jobs where conflict is difficult
to avoid; customer service, policing, emergency services, are but some examples. In
such cases, peoples emotional response to interpersonal conflict has important
implications for subsequent behavior including coping responses, work withdrawal,
and turnover.
The extent to which individuals perceive the interpersonal conflict to be controllable
might also play a critical role in determining the extent to which psychosocial strain is
experienced. Specifically, as the frequency of interpersonal conflicts increases, the
ineffectiveness of workers attempts to reduce conflict might lead to reduced feelings of
self-efficacy and increased frustration, anxiety, and tension. Further research should
explore self-efficacy and related constructs such as locus of control and learning
orientation, to assess the effects that unsuccessful attempts at conflict management
have on workers perceptions of their ability to manage future conflict situations.
The results of the current study indicate that adopting an
integrating/compromising conflict style may have considerable consequences for
workers health and well-being. This demonstrates the importance of assessing a wide
variety of individual psychological and behavioral outcomes when evaluating the
utility of adopting any particular conflict style. Although integrating and
compromising may be the most effective at reducing the amount of conflict, they
may not result in the best health and well-being outcomes for workers. Caution should
therefore be taken when evaluating the usefulness of conflict management styles; to
consider not just the resolution of conflict in the workplace (an important goal to be
sure) but also the psychosocial consequences for the workers who adopt a particular
conflict style.
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Appendix. Integrating/compromising conflict styles items


Compromising
1.

When I argue with people at work, I try to find ways we can compromise.

2.

When I have a disagreement with someone at work, I work toward achieving a


mutually agreeable solution.

Costs of conflict
management
styles
399

Integrating
1.

At work, I accommodate the ideas and opinions of others into my own thinking.

2.

I listen to the ideas and opinions of others at work.

3.

At work, I do not incorporate the ideas and opinions of others when making a
decisionr.

Note: rReverse coded

About the authors


Greg A. Chung-Yan is an Assistant Professor of Applied Social Psychology at the University of
Windsor, Canada. He received his MA and PhD in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from
the University of Guelph, Canada. He teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in
industrial/organizational psychology, social psychology, and research methods. His research
includes job characteristics, workplace adaptability, work stress, and bias and fairness in
employee appraisals. Greg A. Chung-Yan is the corresponding author and can be contacted at:
gcy@uwindsor.ca
Christin Moeller received her MA in Applied Social Psychology in 2009 from the University of
Windsor, where she is also currently continuing with her doctoral studies. Her research interests
include work stress, interpersonal conflict at work and issues in higher education.

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