Teamwork sculpture by David Wynne, 1958, England

Affective, Procedural, & Substantive Conflict

Burnett, R. E. (1993). Conflict in collaborative decision making. In N. R. Blyler & C. Thralls (Eds.), Professional communication: The social perspective (pp. 144-163). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Abstract: offers research-based advice on how to promote effective collaboration in writing projects: (1) delaying consensus; (2) engaging in substantive conflict while avoiding affective and procedural conflict; and (3) operating in a cooperative rather than competitive climate. Notes three strategies for students and professionals to delay consensus: elaborate key ideas, consider alternatives, and voice disagreement.

Defining Conflict

Substantive conflict can enhance collaborative decision-making, but two other kinds of conflict–affective and procedural–are not so valuable. Affective conflict, which deals with interpersonal disagreements, is nearly always disruptive to collaborative decision-making. For example, when collaborators disagree because of personal prejudices (e.g. prejudices stemming from strong social, political, economic, racial, religious, ethnic, philosophical, or interpersonal biases) they are seldom able to focus on the task. Similarly, procedural conflict, which deals with about how collaborators should work together, can also be disruptive if the problems are not resolved or managed effectively. Procedural conflicts can include disagreements about factors such as meeting dates and times, individual task assignments, group organization and leadership, and, curiously, methods of resolving disagreements. While unresolved procedural conflicts can prevent work on collaborative projects from even getting started, discussion of different procedural approaches can lead to a compromise that is mutually acceptable to the collaborators and productive for their decision-making.

While affective and procedural conflict can be detrimental to the collaboration, substantive conflict, which focuses on alternatives and reaching stasis [note 1] can be beneficial. Thus, collaborative writers need to discourage affective and procedural conflict while at the same time encouraging substantive conflict about the content and rhetorical elements of the document they’re planning. Substantive conflict during collaboration not only is normal but can be productive, in large part because it gives collaborators more time to generate and critically examine alternatives and to voice disagreements on their way to make a decision.

Put another way, substantive conflict defers premature consensus (cf. groupthink, Janis). Researchers and theorists in a number of disciplines–social psychology, decision theory, small group communication, and computer-supported cooperative work–argue that premature consensus can short circuit effective decision-making [note 1]. Neglecting cooperative, substantive conflict can reduce the effectiveness of a group and lower the quality of the group’s decisions. However, encouraging cooperative, substantive conflict can increase the effectiveness of a group, improve the quality of the decisions, and increase the group’s commitment to the decisions that are reached.

[note 1]
Dieter (1950) defines stasis as the “standing still,” which must necessarily occur momentarily in-between opposite ‘charges’ and in-between contrary motions (p. 369). In other words, stasis is the stopping place at which people can recognize and identify the points that are in opposition, those issues that are contested. Acknowledging and defining an issue are essential. Without an identified point of contention, specific disagreement is unfocused and alternatives cannot be posed.

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