Debra Connelley is an assistant professor in the School of Management's Department of Organization and Human Resources. She teaches and conducts research in the area of organizational behavior, with a specific interest in intergroup cooperation and conflict.

How did you get into a field of study like intergroup cooperation and conflict?

A professor of mine in graduate school once said that we all research our hang-ups. While his remark was tongue-in-cheek, I think there is some truth to it. I came of age in the '60s. It was a time of conflict between all kinds of groups: hawks and doves, integrationists and segregationists, feminists and chauvinists, you name it. I think my interest in relations between groups comes out of this environment.

How are "intergroup cooperation" and "conflict" defined?

We all identify with various social groups. Some of these are demographic in nature (Latino, female, generation X), some are career or functionally oriented (accountant, musician, pastor). Intergroup conflict occurs when the interests of one or more groups are blocked by the interests of another. Intergroup cooperation, then, is when people feel that the interests of their group are not precluded by another. Defined in this way, we can see that conflict does not necessarily involve threats or overt hostility-it can range from minor disagreements to outright efforts to destroy the other party.

What's the secret to getting groups to work together?

Well, this requires flexibility, creativity and the willingness to change. The first step is to rid oneself of ethnocentrism-the attitude that the goals, values and beliefs of one's own group are superior to all others. This creates the possibility that there may be more than one valid way to view the world. The next step is to recognize differences between groups-particularly in terms of goals, values and beliefs-understand why these differences exist and respect different points of view. Finally, groups learn to accept and even incorporate other values and beliefs into their own world view to create an environment where the interests of all parties can be accommodated.

Is conflict in the workplace on the increase?

I don't know that conflict as a general phenomenon is on the increase. There has always been conflict over scarce resources, for example. However, I do know that the workplace is becoming increasingly diverse, and diverse people by their very nature have more differences than a homogeneous group. This certainly creates more opportunity for conflict.

What's the major cause of conflict in the workplace today?

When I think of conflict in today's workplace, I think of two things: increasing diversity and increasing emphasis on team-based organizational structures where people have to interact closely with others who may be very different from themselves.

What are some of the techniques you've learned for defusing conflict?

We know that intergroup conflict increases when individuals focus on group boundaries. This focus engenders social comparisons that ask "are you like me or not like me?" So most of the techniques we look at involve decreasing the salience or relevance of group boundaries. We do this by focusing on superordinate goals that require the cooperation of both groups to accomplish, creating a superordinate group that encompasses all subordinate groups as equal and full members, or raising awareness of group memberships that cut across various group boundaries and tie people together.

What is the consequence to an organization that fails to address conflict within the workplace?

When an organization fails to manage conflict, it runs the risk of escalation. When conflict escalates, it involves increasing levels of distrust and hostility, decreased communication, greater polarization between groups on an increasing number of issues, growth in the use of coercive tactics, extremism in demands and the spread of conflict by enlisting other parties to take sides.

Is conflict in the workplace always bad?

Believe it or not, the answer is "no." Moderate levels of conflict lead to improved quality of decisions and stimulation of creativity and innovation. Conflict can encourage employee motivation, interest and curiosity, as well as foster an environment of self improvement and organizational adaptation. The key is to manage the conflict so that the organization receives the benefit of increased performance, not the dysfunctional outcomes that accompany uncontrolled conflict.

What are some of the signs that conflict is causing trouble within an organization?

In organizational behavior we always look at decreased employee satisfaction, decreased organizational commitment, increased absenteeism, higher turnover and lower productivity.

Why is there such a big emphasis on teaching professionals to work cooperatively?

Organizations have changed. The current trend toward "horizontal" organizations, where work is organized around core processes, rather than traditional functions (e.g., accounting, marketing, R&D, manufacturing), means that people have to move out of their comfortable "silos" where everyone thinks just like them and into cross-functional teams. This requires skills in working cooperatively with people who see the world in very different ways. Increasing demographic diversity in the American workforce is another reason, as is the internationalization of the marketplace.

What's something people don't know about you and should?

I am a total wimp when it comes to dealing with conflict in my own life and tend to avoid it at all costs

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