In a new paper, three researchers demonstrate that whether conflict is exhausting or exhilarating depends on what is really threatened in the dispute. A threat to a relationship is most likely to leave one exhausted (and susceptible to the temptation of chocolate) while threats to tangible interests such as safety or property, or elements of an individual's identity including values or ideologies, energize people to take action and fight back.
Nir Halevy, acting assistant professor of organizational behavior at Stanford GSB, along with Eileen Y. Chou and Adam D. Galinsky of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, studied hundreds of non-student adults and university students in an effort to understand why conflicts can have such opposite effects on the individuals experiencing them.
The researchers found that when individuals faced threats to their relationships they felt depleted and weak. In addition, those who experienced threats to relationships reported greater likelihood of losing sleep and weight as well as crying, compared to those who experienced threats to their material interests or identities.
The hypothesis was tested several different ways. Halevy, Chou, and Galinsky also found that whether subjects saw the conflict as a challenge or a threat determined how they behaved. "Conflicts that jeopardize interests produce challenge appraisals, which invigorate individuals to take action. In contrast, conflicts that jeopardize relationships produce threat appraisals, which produce taxing stress," says Halevy.
In another study, 111 university students were asked to write essays describing a conflict that threatened either their material interests, social relationships, or their identities. After the session was finished they were ushered individually into another room to be paid, and told to help themselves to a bowl of candy bars. Those who were asked to write about a conflict threatening a relationship took more chocolate — on average 2.39 candy bars — as opposed to 1.74 for those asked to describe conflicts involving interests and 1.54 for those asked to describe threats to identities.
"This work helps us understand why there is so much variance in how people react to conflict," said Galinsky. "Employees who view conflict at work as a threat to their interests will get angry and active; those who worry about losing social capital and harming their relationships with co-workers will withdraw and avoid," he adds.
There are also times when it is prudent to focus on a specific part of the conflict. "If one needs to gear up for a fight or dissolve a business partnership that went sour, it is wise to think primarily about the interests that one seeks to protect. However, if one prepares for a deal-making negotiation and wants to lay the foundations for a long-term partnership, it is wise to be cognizant of the relational elements too," says Chou.