Academic journal article Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal

When and How Employees Learn: The Effect of Task Conflict on Learning Behavior

Academic journal article Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal

When and How Employees Learn: The Effect of Task Conflict on Learning Behavior

Article excerpt

Organizations encourage employees to adopt positive learning behavior to survive the sometimes intense competition in a rapidly changing business environment (Arygris & Schon, 1978). Despite a vast amount of research on this topic, there have been repeated calls for better understanding of the factors that foster learning behavior (Lankau & Scandura, 2002). When and how task conflict, which is a critical contextual factor, influences employees' learning behavior is investigated in this research. Task conflict refers to the differences in views among members within a team on task-related issues, such as resource distribution and work procedures (Jehn, 1995).

The focus in this study is task conflict because it has the potential to stimulate employees' learning behavior (De Dreu, 2006; Jehn, 1995). For instance, De Dreu proposed that task conflict obliges employees to scrutinize task-related issues and accurately access diverse perspectives. These actions foster learning. However, task conflict is sometimes viewed as interfering with employees' cognitive process (Jehn, 1995) and inhibiting their learning. Empirical researchers have rarely explored when and how task conflict affects learning behavior. Therefore, in this study the information perspective (van Knippenberg, De Dreu, & Homan, 2004) is adopted to demonstrate that task conflict increases learning behavior through information elaboration, and that task reflexivity, a motivation to systematically process information, moderates the effect of task conflict on information elaboration and learning behavior.

Theoretical Background and Hypotheses

Information Perspective on Task Conflict

The information perspective (van Knippenberg et al., 2004) claims that social environment affects individuals' behavior through the processing of different information embedded in the social environment. This perspective has been widely adopted to explain the positive effects of diversity (i.e., the actual or perceived differences among employees) on performance (e.g., Kearney, Gebert, & Voelpel, 2009). The argument is that different employees offer diverse perspectives/information; which enhances the integration of diverse information and thus further improves performance. Consistent with this argument, Kearney et al. (2009) found that educational diversity increases team performance through information elaboration, i.e., exchange and integration of diverse information or ideas.

Task conflict delivers diverse information regarding task issues, such as work methods and procedures, work time, and resource allocation (Jehn, 1995). According to the information perspective, task conflict affects employees' behavior through the processing of the embedded information. Specifically, task conflict triggers controversy, causing those employees confronting dissenters to compare their own views with those of the dissenters (Deutsch, Coleman, & Marcus, 2006). Through refutation and rebuttal of criticism, they are either persuaded to take on the views of the dissenters or they persuade their dissenters to adopt their opinions (Deutsch et al., 2006) whether in part or in whole. This process sets the stage for elaboration of task-related information. Thus, the following hypothesis was formed:

Hypothesis 1: Task conflict will have a positive relationship with information elaboration.

Effect of Information Elaboration

Information elaboration is expected to improve learning behavior. Learning behavior refers to the use of acquired information and knowledge to improve performance or actions (Arygris & Schon, 1978). Examples are discussion of errors and seeking feedback (Edmondson, 1999). Errors and feedback convey information about work limitations and possible improvements, thus helping employees improve performance and foster learning (Edmondson, 1999). Likewise, in task conflict, elaboration of diverse information regarding work methods, procedures, and resource allocation will ameliorate the work of employees and thus enhance their learning behavior. …

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