It can be good or bad, depending upon what kind it is and in what cultural context it occurs.

Everyone knows conflict in the workplace is a bad thing, right? Perhaps not, answers a team of six researchers. Specifically, they found that Americans, as opposed to East Asians, seem to believe that they can overcome personal conflicts with co-workers when it comes to the pursuit of profits.

In “Folk Wisdom About the Effects of Relationship Conflict,” an October 2006 working paper at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, the researchers conducted three studies of American and East Asian business school students and their attitudes toward conflict. If there was one thing everyone agreed on, it was that “task conflict,” in other words, disagreements among team members related to a specific business task like a marketing plan or a budget, could be a drain on business performance. But relationship conflict — conflict among team members that’s unrelated to the business at hand — was a different story.

The researchers first surveyed 136 Americans, 80 Koreans and 56 Chinese, all students attending a Midwestern business school. Neither the Americans nor the East Asians were particularly fond of task conflict, the surveys showed. But the American cohort was much less likely to believe that relationship conflict was necessarily detrimental to performance. “That variation is not found in other places, specifically in East Asia,” says Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, assistant professor of management and organizations at the Ross School.

The irony is that research seems universal in determining that relationship conflict is actually bad for performance. “Together, [previous] studies show that . . . a team that does not get along has little chance of performing well,” write Sanchez-Burks and his co-authors, Eric J. Neuman (doctoral student) and Shirli Kopelman (clinical assistant professor of management and organizations) at Ross; Oscar Ybarra (associate professor) and Hyekyung Park (graduate student) of Michigan’s psychology department; and Karen Goh, a doctoral student at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business.

However, not all task conflict is necessarily bad. Indeed, many great companies have been known to foster a culture of challenge and confrontation, wherein healthy debate forces employees to think through and defend their proposals fully. It’s when healthy task conflict degrades into relationship conflict — when teammates can’t agree to disagree — that a team’s performance begins to sag, according to research.

Yet Americans in general seem to think they can work through their personal disagreements. The authors posit that this American exceptionalism fits the image of the Protestant work ethic — the secular theory often applied to American and Anglo-Saxon cultures that emphasizes “professionalism” over other concerns, including relationships. And the East Asians’ avoidance of relationship conflict similarly fits the image of Chinese and Koreans valuing relationships in work contexts and shunning direct conflict.

Those folk wisdoms manifest in real decisions. In another study, the six researchers surveyed 76 Americans at a business school in the United States and 85 Koreans at a business school in Korea. Although the study found Americans to be blissfully optimistic about relationship conflict in the workplace, Sanchez-Burks and his colleagues make it clear that entire populations should not be treated with such a broad brush. “What we found were central tendencies. But there were overlapping distributions in the samples.” In other words, some Americans were turned off by relationship conflict, and some East Asians were ambivalent about it.

So the real point, says Sanchez-Burks, is that individuals will differ in their beliefs about relationship conflict. Bringing together people from different backgrounds is more likely to make those differences evident. “The implication is that these things can influence who you want to do business with, and who you don’t. And when you’re doing business with someone, it can influence your ability to overcome conflict,” says Sanchez-Burks. “[In business settings,] there’s going to be some conflict. If you ignore the fact that people have different beliefs about it, you can end up with misunderstandings that could be characterized as meta-conflict.”

For more information, contact Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks at jsanchezburks@umich.edu.