Intergroup conflicts are prevalent in our society. In organizations, we often see tension between departments, units, workgroups and teams. Although workgroup relations in organizations should be cooperative and allow for positive intergroup contact, they have been found to provide fertile ground for intergroup conflict. Such conflicts have been shown to negatively affect employee well-being because they contribute to bullying and stress. Because conflicts between workgroups may lead to workflow disruptions and negatively affect performance, it is often a main concern for management. As a result, a vast number of studies have explored different ways to reduce the tension resulting from conflicts between workgroups.
In order to find ways to reduce negative attitudes and emotions toward outgroups in organization, a recent study examined the effects of intergroup contact on intergroup prosocial behavior. Prosocial behavior is voluntary behavior intended to benefit another, such as helping, sharing and cooperating. Koschate and scholars investigated prosocial behavior between employees working in different workgroups within the same organization and found that personal contact increased prosocial behavior directed at individual outgroup members, whereas task-oriented contact increased prosocial behavior directed at an outgroup as a whole.
When contact led ingroup members to focus on personal characteristics of individual outgroup members, there was a perception of similarity, which allowed them to empathize with individual outgroup members. On the other hand, task-oriented contact increased knowledge about the outgroup’s skills, roles, and duties which decreased costs of helping (i.e. investing time and resources) and increased rewards for helping (i.e. feeling good about helping, feeling competent and learning by helping others).
These findings offer a valuable insight on how we can manage and even prevent intergroup conflicts in organizations. While personal contact between members of different groups is an effective way to build rapport and trust between individuals, task-oriented contact between groups may be a better strategy to make the boundaries between ingroup and outgroup permeable and promote prosocial behavior directed at the group as a whole.
Koschate, M., Oethinger, S., Kuchenbrandt, D.,& Dick, R.V. (2012). Is an outgroup member in need a friend indeed? Personal and task-oriented contact as predictors of intergroup prosocial behavior. European Journal of Social Psychology, 42, 717-728.
Kimberlee Kovach, a past Chair of the Dispute Resolution Section, has worked in mediation as a teacher, trainer, scholar, and practitioner for more than 35 years. To learn more about...By Jeffrey Krivis, Judith Meyer, Kimberlee Kovach, Larry Watson