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  • Writer's pictureMarkéta Hinková

Student Showcase: Janet Eisbrenner Functional Conflict as a Catalyst to Team Efficacy

Updated: Aug 11, 2020

I am proud to present one of the university students I lecture and her work on functional conflict: enjoy! I'll try to showcase as many of my talented students as possible to help get their work out there in the world.

Short annotation :

This paper examines the relationship between functional conflict and team efficacy. It establishes that conflict, when handled appropriately, can facilitate the level of team effectiveness. The report provides a broad look at functional and dysfunctional conflict forms. In consideration of functional – or constructive – types of conflict, the exploration considers the level to which constructive conflict enables teams to attain their work goals. A specific problem that the paper will explore is the extent to which a team diminishes its efficacy if it utilizes destructive avenues to work through disputes. Other words for functional conflict that the paper uses include productive, positive, and constructive. The article asserts that conflict has a transformative aspect by giving teams a chance a new beginning for innovativeness, creativity, and energy. It explores how team members can use conflict to find common ground and respect differences. The analysis contemplates the usefulness of formal conflict management systems to promote functional conflict. A major premise of the paper is that active forms of handling conflict are an integral and critical component of team efficacy. The exploration has a world-wide aspect to it; however, the strength of it is mostly from a North American frame.


Administration, conflict, constructive, destructive, dysfunctional, efficacy, functional, goals, operative, performance, productive, resolve, success, team, workplace.

Research question:

Is functional conflict a critical component of putting teams in a position to be an effective unit that performs at optimal levels in the best interests of the organization and team members?


Conflict is an evitable feature of being part of a work team. Indeed, it is challenging to work within a group or team without experiencing a wide assortment of disagreements, friction, disputes, and arguments. When the work team operates effectively, it can add value to the organization. If unyielding and sustained conflict abounds, a team’s jeopardizes its ability to be effective in reaching its work goals. Subsequently, the worth that the team provides to the company decreases. This outcome does not mean that conflict is the problem; instead, it is how the parties tackle difficulties that affect the level of team effectiveness. This paper examines how engaging in functional conflict methods as opposed to destructive leads to team efficacy. The objective is to explore the array of effective conflict forms that make it possible for teams to accomplish organizational tasks. Constructive conflict forms entail members taking deliberate steps to respond to conflict strategically rather than defensively. In the context of this objective, the paper will explore the extent to which teams are an ineffective unit if they continually participate in a destructive way to handle problems within the group that arises. The paper concludes that functional conflict is a critical component of putting teams to reach a heightened level of efficacy.

A Group versus a Team

Work teams generally begin as groups of two or more individuals who share collective norms and goals and have a shared identity (Kinicki, Fugate and Digby, 2019, p 181). Groups exist for the benefit of their members, but their role is not to serve the organization. Conversely, one cannot consider a group of individuals as a team if it has an organizational-concentrated objective. In essence, groups exist for the benefit of their members, not for the organization's advantage (McShane and Tasa, 2018, p 141). Teams and groups have many of the same purposes, including they interact and influence each other and share many common interests. However, a team differs from a group in that its members achieve specific goals on behalf of a business or organization. Membership focuses on particular work teams such as project management, committees, task forces, and management (Engleberg and Wynn, 2013, p 7). Compared to a group, work teams perceive themselves as social

units within an organization with a distinct aim of a collective obligation. (Kinicki et al., 2019, p 191). Conversely, groups serve to provide members with affection and support, to support and encourage members who want to need help with personal problems or share common interests of a social nature (Engleberg and Wynn, 2013, p 7). While the fabric of a team may resonate with some or all of these qualities, if there is not a joint obligation towards an organizational objective, the gathering of persons is simply a group.

Group members tend to maintain individual autonomy and accountability while teams have a wider array of commonality than just interests and objectives (Nelson, Quick, Armstrong, Roubecase, and Condie, 2020, p 167). Teams hold many of the same characteristics as groups; hence, all teams are groups. However, not all groups are teams. Distinguishing characteristics that contrast a team from a group include that a team remains in existence for an extended period, a team, collectively, has diverse skills and knowledge and a team distributes the accountability of decision-making throughout the unit (McShane, Tasa and Steen, 2018, p 217). Organizational Behavior experts Nelson et al. (2020) suggest that a team has four qualities distinguishing them from a group that include: 1) A team is composed of people with complementary skills, 2) Exists to accomplish a goals, 3) With members who work interdependent, and 4) Who hold each other mutually accountable for their performance (p 167).

Team Efficacy

Authors McShane et al. (2018) explain that the essence of team effectiveness is its capability to meets the needs of its members and preserve its existence (p 241). Three primary factors influence a team’s efficiency, including 1) structure, 2) group process and 3) task and maintenance behaviors. Structure relates to what the team sets out to achieve and the tools they have to accomplish their tasks (Nelson et al., 2020, p 172). To achieve this area, the team sets roles, boundaries, and decision-making limits for its members. The characteristics of each member are essential. If there is a discrepancy in commitment, team efficacy will diminish.

The group process area relates to how the group will achieve its tasks; it describes the behavioral components of group effectiveness and encompasses

whether groups get along or not. Nelson et al. (2020) explain that levels of both cooperative behaviors and competitive behaviors are essential for team efficacy to prevail. Competitive behaviors are the level to which members can elicit strong interpersonal teamwork skills (p 172). Strong interpersonal skills include mutual support, personal integrity, and soft skills. Soft skills are “personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people” (Calanca, Sayfullina, Minkus, Wagner, and Malmi, 2019, p 2). Examples of soft skills are empathetic listening, conflict resolution, negotiation, persuasion, and teamwork (Doyle, 2020). If team members are not performing optimally in all of the skills required in the group process area, the team will reduce its efficacy.

Competitive behaviors are also an essential aspect of the efficiency level of a team in the group process area. Competitive behavior typically describes achievement skills, and include the ability to enjoy competition, play, and be a good winner or loser (Nelson et al., 2020, p 172). Management and team leaders might reward individual members for a display of competitive behavior that he or she undertakes in the spirit of helping the team to achieve their work objectives.

Regarding the third factor in team effectiveness - Task and maintenance functions – this area relates to the capacity within which the team can finish the work tasks and maintain functions to ensure member satisfaction and a sense of team spirit. Nelson et al. (2020) describe a variety of task functions, some of which include initiating activities, summarizing ideas, testing ideas, giving information, and diagnosing problems. Some of the maintenance functions, including supporting others, setting standards, testing group decisions, harmonizing conflict, and reducing tension (p 173). If the difficulties develop as a team works through the work tasks and maintenance functions, and the team mismanages how they go about managing the problems, conflict can ensue. Authors Abigail and Cahn (2011) suggest that negligence in conflict handling is problematic because the mismanagement can result in lowered productivity, less creativity, and less innovation. Further prolonged, unresolved conflict may even have negative consequences for team member’s health (p 245).

There can be some overlap in what constitutes team actions that fall into the team process area versus the task and maintenance functions. Social loafing is a situation where one can argue that falls in either area. It is not particularly relevant

which area it falls into; pertinent to emphasize is that the circumstance of social loafing plays a critical role in team efficacy. If a team engages in extensive social loafing, team efficacy will wane. Therefore it is vital to explore it in the context of the understanding of team efficacy.

Social loafing occurs when there is inequitable participation in teamwork. On that frame, one might label it as falling in the team process area because participation constitutes a method of how teams conduct their work. Conversely, it is possibly part of the task and maintenance function because it involves task completion and has a result of dissatisfaction amongst members. Social loafing describes the loss of motivation and effort within group situations (Ohlert and Kleinert, 2013, p 231). It occurs when one or more group members exert less energy than they would if they were working along (Nelson et al., 2020, p 178). A study by Liden, Wayne, Jaworski, and Bennett (2004) supports the idea about a hidden aspect playing a role in the level of individual participation. Their findings suggest that when tasks are not highly visible by others, individuals may perceive no benefit from exerting high effort and no punishment from using low effort (p 288). On work teams, conscientious team members often intervene and pick up the negligence of the non-participating team members (McShane et al. 2018). With this intervention, the team remains on a trajectory with the work task; however, the action is a short-term solution to maintaining efficacy. Ultimately, it is problematic and does little to promote team unity or team effectiveness. Authors Nelson et al. (2020) explain that the corrective action is questionable because it can increase dissatisfaction and increase group conflict (p 178).

The Relationship of Team Conflict and Team Efficacy

Defining Workplace Conflict-

Combining a cluster of individuals into a work team is fast becoming the norm; however, the challenges of working successfully in teams are immense. One problem is conflict. Work conflict is the process resulting from the tension between team members because of real or perceived differences (De Dreu and Weingart, 2003, p 741). Within and between teams, battles can erupt because when people work together to achieve a common goal, there is always the potential for disagreement (Engleberg and Wynn, 2013, p 11).

People most often see conflict as something terrible; subsequently, a flight or flee responses are common (Hocker and Wilmot, 2018). Team conflict occurs when the relationships amongst team members are characterized by ongoing, dialectic tensions between the multiple contradictions, complexities, and changes in human experiences (Engleberg and Wynn, 2013, p 19). Conflict resolution experts Cloke and Goldsmith suggest that people often see conflict as a dungeon where many organizational cultures place a premium on conflict suppression and avoidance (p 3). Subsequently, approaches to conflict resolution are typically limiting or negative. Continued and unresolved workplace conflict is unhealthy (Cloke and Goldsmith, 2000, p 50). In the context of a team, unresolved conflict can undermine the team’s morale, cause stress, and inhibit the team from performing its work goals. As a result, the team fails to learn from their conflicts, resists change, and cannot see how they might respond more skillfully to their obstacles and problems, or those experienced by others (p 7). If a team does not take the time to deal with disagreements productively at the early stages, the dispute can spiral to heightened levels. Conflict is a fact of life; related to work, it occurs as a part of all work relationships (Abigail and Cahn, 2011, p 7). Therefore, team members must expect conflict and learn to deal with both minor and major battles.

Functional versus Dysfunctional Conflict –

Conflict occurs for a variety of reasons – there are societal divisions, political barriers, and diversity-based barriers (Abigail and Cahn, 2011, p 2). Authors Abigail and Cahn (2011) propose that at the foundation of many organizational conflicts is diversity-based, which occurs when personal characteristics, such as identification with cultural, ethnic, and racial groups, are the source of the battle (p 246). Regardless of the barrier or division, these circumstances carry over into our work relationships. It is not that the destructive conflict; instead, it is how the parties go about resolving the problem that causes it to be functional or dysfunctional conflict. Productive conflict is a conflict that improves performance and is a constructive disagreement between two or more people (Nelson et al., 2020, p 184). In contrast, if the conflict is destructive or dysfunction when it leaves the parties dissatisfied (Abigail and Cahn, 2011, p 11).

Functional conflict is productive action where the team keeps to the issue and those involved. If the team detracts from the problem-solving stage regarding

the problem, it has the capability of looping back to concentrating on the issue. For example, if the issue proliferates to a variety of unrelated sub-areas and the team begins to blame the other team members for the problem, team working within a functional conflict realm will find ways to loop back to the problem-solving stage. As conflict resolution experts Hocker and Wilmot (2018) explain, in positive conflict, the parties will see conflict as serving the function of bringing problems to the table, helping people join together and clarify their goals, and to clear out resentments and help people understand each other (pp 47-49). When engaging within a functional realm to deal with problems, the team values varying positions, seeks common ground, respects differences. Through these avenues, the team is able to be creative and innovative.

Authors Abagail and Cahn explain a productive view of conflict situations to include flexibility and the belief that all conflicting parties can achieve their important goals. In this frame, the group members welcome divergence of opinion in ways that value everyone’s involvement and endorse the group’s purpose (Engleberg and Wynn, 2018, p 212). In a functional form, the team strikes a healthy balance between assertive and non-assertive communication. Authors Abigail and Cahn (2011) suggest to find a healthy balance; groups consider choosing among four conflict communication options that include occasion, time and location, the other person, and one’s own needs. They also suggest that team members must not choose the first conflict resolution response; instead, it is critical to slow down, think about the situation, and then respond (pp 64-65). As teams work through the conflict using these productive means, they apply a variety of interpersonal and soft skills.

Further, in productive conflict, leaders will take the time to learn conflict skills to intervene in disputes within their team (Hocker and Wilmot, 2018, p 13). The functional conflict has a transformative nature to it in that it often results in a greater understanding of oneself and the other team member(s). The transformative nature is evident in the phrase of the conflict process where a trigger event causes the conflict to become apparent; the team works through the opposing views through a variety of expressions, and the aftermath where a new equilibrium is reached, ideally through resolution and dispute settlement (Nelson et al., p 18). If a transformative element has occurred, the team will see it in the aftermath stage.

Dysfunctional conflict is distinctive from the functional conflict in that there are no healthy exchanges during the team member’s engagement in the battle. Destructive tactics are used, which rarely results in a long-term, mutually satisfying resolution. Destructive techniques include blaming the other person for the problem, defensiveness, contempt, dominance, and heightened emotional intensity reciprocity of negative emotion, attacking, verbal and no-violent outbursts, and retaliation (Hocker and Wilmot, 2018, 22-31). The techniques not only provide a disservice to the interests of the organization and employees but keep the conflict ongoing where team effectiveness regresses or disappears.

Subsequently, the team hinders its performance, and the focus increasingly shifts away from the organizational work. If the team does not take the time to collaborate to find a mutual resolution to the difficulty, team members will engage in destructive tactics through behaviors that create hostility and prevent them from achieving their goals (Engleberg and Wynn, 2013, p 176). This outcome destroys team cohesion and damages social relationships because members focus on who is right, and winning becomes the goal rather than finding a mutually satisfactory resolution (Nelson et al., 2020, p 184). Dysfunctional conflict to persist leads to decreased productivity spreads the dispute to others and leads to lower morale (Hocker and Wilmot, 2018, p 13).

A spectrum of conflict escalation is evident in stages. Authors Kinicki et al. (2016) explain three stages. The first stage entails an interpersonal disagreement where the team can readily resolve the problem, providing they use the right approach. The authors label this stage as “low-level conflicts.” If the parties do not appropriately deal with the conflict at this early juncture, the conflict escalates to a second stage where increasing levels of emotional intensity occur, and rational thought decreases. The authors label this stage as an “incivility of behavior stage.” If the team does not take the initiative to move back to the interpersonal disagreement stage, the group reaches a crisis point where violence can erupt. This point is the third stage – “high-level conflict” - where the parties will most likely need third-party intervention to help them navigate the problem and find a resolution (p 257).

Team Effectiveness Relative to Functional versus Dysfunctional Conflict -

In consideration of functional versus dysfunctional conflict, it is paramount to take problem areas seriously and find creative resolutions. Therefore, it is not the conflict that is the problem. Instead, it is how the team addresses the difficulty that creates either productive or adverse circumstances. Engagement in constructive conflict forms energizes people to debate issues, evaluate alternatives more thoroughly, and probe and test each other’s way of thinking (Hocker and Wilmot, 2018). An openness to relate to conflicts in this manner creates a non-static nature in teams. This moving aspect is essential because it results in a group being open to receiving and giving new ideas and information. Authors McShane et al. (2018) explain that functional conflict leads to team effectiveness because people are more motivated to work together (p 309).

Members are more motivated because each conflict's success provides the momentum and impetus for the team to face disagreements to achieve a productive end confidently. If functional conflict prevails, the team works to build a team that meets the interests of the organization and the team but of the individual members.

The team must strive to keep conflict at moderate levels; otherwise, the team jeopardizes its effectiveness. Authors McShane et al. (2018) suggest that the unit becomes less effective with high levels of conflict (p 309) Thus, while some levels of differentiation in the teams sorting through of a struggle is essential, it is also vital that the team reverts to integration within a reasonable period. Differentiation includes a period where the team overlooks everyday needs, compound the issues, and use a variety of destructive tactics. R. Walton's (1987) research relays that in differentiation, issues complicate and proliferate. In contrast, in integration, problems and emotions become focused, and the parties can decipher what is worth fighting. Equating tension with conflict, Walton reasoned that low conflict intensity leads to inactivity and avoidance, neglect of information, and low joint performance. High conflict intensity reduces the capacity to perceive, process, and evaluate information. With neither low nor high levels being ideal, it appears that moderate conflict intensity levels are more conducive to team effectiveness. That is because, at reasonable levels, parties will seek and integrate information, consider more alternatives, and experience a strong impulse to improve the situation (De Dreu, 2006, p 86).

There appears to be some support to the idea of an advantage to a moderate level in conflict intensity relating to team efficacy. For example, authors

McShane and Tasa (2018) explain that organizations are most successful when teams experience some degree of conflict; however, they emphasize that there is a point in which the team must engage collaboratively under challenging circumstances rather than ignore it (p 309). Authors, Cloke and Goldsmith (2000) explain, if the conflict continues unabated, it possesses a dark, hypnotic, destructive power that leaves the individuals of a team feeling helpless, stuck, and fearful (p 3). When a team can navigate challenging times by utilizing functional conflict and deal with difficulties at the early stages, there is the potential for failures to give way to team success. Thus, when a disagreement arises, a productive group will deal with the difficulty through constructive conflict handling. Group conflict experts Engleberg and Wynn (2013) expound that groups without constructive conflict are groups without the means to analyze the wisdom of their decisions (p 16). The team’s handling of the conflict functionally, stimulates its members to spawn new ideas and transform relationships. This process entails the team utilizing productive argumentation to achieve its common goal, which is the organizational task that the group is assigned. Argumentation means that the team will use critical thinking to advocate proposals, examine competing ideas, and influence one another (p 224). The result of this process allows the group members to develop present and defend their viewpoints as well as objectively listen to and analyze the views of others.

A System of Conflict Management to Build Team Effectiveness

One way for an organization to promote that its teams engage in functional, not dysfunctional conflict is for the administration to incorporate a formal system of a conflict management system. Conflict resolution researchers Dunford, Mumford, Boss, Boss, and Boss (2020) suggest that the best approach is an integrated conflict management system (ICMS). An ICMS is ‘‘a systematic approach to preventing, managing and resolving conflict within the organization’’ (p 529). The premise of the system is not to consider conflict as harmful; instead, it views conflict as an opportunity to strengthen relationships amongst team members. The ICMS formalizes conflict management, which encourages team members to handle disagreement as dialectic experiences. The system promotes that the team collectively investigates problems that arise as opposed to individual team members working through difficulties in an isolated way. A central facet of an ICMS is that it addresses the sources of conflict and provides a method for promoting competence in dealing with conflict throughout the organization (Lipsky, 2015, p S20).

It is critical to highlight that installing a dispute management system is an intricate process requiring considerable analysis. Such an in-depth examination is beyond the scope of this paper. However, I note it here to highlight that a team’s engagement in functional, not dysfunctional conflict, requires much support from the administration. This support is most useful when the administration commits to developing and implementing a dispute management system that helps weave the notion of functional conflict forms into the organizational culture, rather than “dealing with conflict in a piecemeal, ad hoc fashion as isolated events” (Lipsky, 2015, p S27) – that is, in dysfunctional ways. When implemented appropriately, a formal system of conflict management will develop a participative culture in which individual team members feel informed and encouraged to take responsibility for resolving problems. A participative aspect of the culture means that information flows freely to and from employees and that they think they control decisions about their work (Dunford et al., p 533).

An administration’s commitment to the implementation and promotion of a conflict management structure will strengthen a team’s ability to be a capable unit. A formal arrangement will emphasize open-systems thinking, in which disputes within a group will move away from cataloged employee tasks towards integrated qualities. Constantino, Merchant, and Sickles (1996) highlight that open-system thinking inspires an emphasis not on the elements as detached, self-supporting objects; but, preferably on the whole and the collaboration of the parts (p 22). When an organization designs and implements a formal system of functional conflict management, it is a signal to the team that the administration supports and facilitates a culture of constructive dialogue. The result is that the team can “experience the pleasure of honest, and open dialogue, passionate commitment, teamwork, camaraderie, self-fulfilment, enjoyable interactions and communications, deeper relationships, and an increased ability to solve our problems and resolve our conflicts” (Cloke and Goldsmith, 2000, p 194).

An open dialogue entails effective forms of handling conflict as opposed to destructive ways. Constructive types of conflict will include a specific set of principles that include: 1) Disagreement does not result in punishment, 2) Members work with

one another to achieve a mutually satisfying resolution of the conflict, 3) Lower-status group members are free to disagree with high-status members, and 4) The group has an agreed-upon approach for conflict resolution and decision making (Engleberg and Wynn, 2013, p 176). These positive forms will value team member contributions, both individually and collectively, and support the group’s goal. Supporting the work goal is the utmost because the work objective is the reason for the team’s existence.

A formal system of functional conflict will develop avenues and mechanisms that are tailored to unique organizational needs and resolve long-standing multiparty disputes within the team. In the context of team effectiveness, this means that the formalized “system will stimulate organizational growth, insight, change, learning and leading to improved operations” (Cloke and Goldsmith, 2000, p 314).


This paper explored the association of team effectiveness and functional conflict. The examination reveals a significant relationship. It shows that productive ways to handle team conflict are the critical factor of a team’s ability to perform its assigned tasks and complete its goals successfully. Further, the analysis reveals that constructive conflict management is a stimulus that created an amalgamated team with the capability of effectively accomplishing its work aim. The conclusions that are evident from the paper’s exploration include:

1. A functional conflict has a transformative nature in the light that it can energize the team to debate issues and evaluate alternatives more thoroughly. However, conflict can bring negative consequences and stifle change when team members handle disputes destructively.

2. Operative consequences to functional conflict handling include heightened team harmony, openness to a changing environment and quality decision-making, transparency to a changing climate, and more substantial team unity. Adverse impacts of dysfunctional dispute handling include a reduction in team solidarity, higher levels of stress, and less information exchange.

3. Conflicts have the potential to move between functional to dysfunctional frames. If a team stays within the productive realm of resolving the dispute, it can competently accomplish its goals. However, if the team moves into the dysfunctional sphere, it becomes ineffective and unable to achieve its goals.

To create a culture where functional conflict abounds, the administration must genuinely support the implementation of a formal system of conflict management. While the paper did not delve deeply into this aspect, it highlighted the significance of these systems in producing functional conflict. Adoption of these initiatives creates a culture that strengthens an organization's ability to respond preventively and proactively to disputes (Cloke and Goldsmith, 2011, p 318). The findings through the analysis have practical application for human resource managers, management in general, and team leaders. Team efficacy enhances a team's ability to complete its tasks and fulfil its goals assigned to it by the organization. A team with this capacity adds value to the organization.


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