Most employees find themselves challenged from different quarters, and the research suggests that managers are particularly vulnerable in this respect.
It looks at the experience of Norwegian executives dealing with three different types of role conflict, one of which is the well-known collision between work and home.
Trying to live up to the ideal versions of manager, spouse and parent is difficult, if not impossible. The demands made by these roles pull in different directions.
The research team has also looked at the way executives deal with conflicting signals at work – something they have called “job-job” conflicts.
These can arise for instance when a company’s owners set high sales targets, which could lead in turn to adverse reactions from the employees. Another example is colliding expectations from owners and unions.
Finally, the study has addressed conflicts between the executive’s ethical standards and the work she or he is required to carry out as effective leaders.
One example of these cross-pressures could be when a manager must push their subordinates to rush deliveries, even if this could be at the expense of quality.
All three types of role conflict remain surprisingly stable over time, the study finds. Executives who experience such cross-pressures at the start are often struggling with them also 12 years later.
“Managers are seemingly less adaptable than we’d imagined,” says sociology professor Knud Knudsen at the UiS. “Sociologists have thought that people deliberately do something to solve burdening role conflicts.
“Moreover, much of management coaching, course programmes and seminars rest on the assumption that executives are flexible and capable of change.” The findings suggest that such assumptions are less valid than previously believed.
The study is based on a panel of 577 Norwegian managers at all levels, and draws on data from three management surveys conducted by Norway’s Administrative Research Institute (AFF).
Regardless of whether an executive originally experiences strong conflicts over roles or is less bothered by them, the level of such cross-pressures shows little change over time.
According to the researchers, managers appear to establish a level and mix of role conflicts which they can master and which they can live with.
The fact that executives often stay in the same work environment may also explain why these cross-pressures remain stable.
Not necessarily negative
Conflicting demands on managers are, however, not necessarily experienced as negative, Knudsen observes.
“Clashes over roles can also be perceived as a confirmation that the individual is a significant person and an important social being,” he points out.
“A conflict between job and home, for example, could be an indication that you’re in strong demand in both places. You are wanted by several others.”
Normal condition for managers
Having to deal with pressures from various quarters appears to a normal condition for many executives, according to the new study.
The managers covered by the survey completed the questionnaires involved on three occasions – in 1999, 2002 and 2011.
“Participants were executives in both 1999 and 2011, and have accordingly been in leadership positions for a long time,” explains Hulda Mjöll Gunnarsdóttir.
“Over time, the pattern of role conflicts hardens, and the individual discovers how to adapt to it.”
Gunnarsdóttir participated in carrying out the study, and work on her PhD in management at the UiS.
The research is described in the article Aldri fred å få? Rollekonflikter midt i lederlivet. (A Constant Struggle? Role Conflicts for Norwegian Managers in mid-career years.) in Sosiologisk tidsskrift, number 1, 2014.
It is written by Knudsen, Mjöll Gunnarsdóttir and Jan Erik Karlsen.
The theme is also discussed in Uforanderlige? Alternative forklaringer på lederes vedvarende rollekonflikter. (Unchangeable? Alternative explanations for persisting role conflicts among managers) in Magma: Econas tidsskrift for økonomi og ledelse, March 2014. The article is written by Knudsen.
Personal qualities in focus
Traditional management development has concentrated on the manager’s personal qualities, and on whether they are suitable for the job.
The question has been how the executive can change and develop their behaviour, says Arne Selvik, head of communication at the AFF in Bergen.
This institute provides management development and continuing education programmes, as well as consultancy services in management research.
“It’s important to consider the context of management development programmes,” Selvik comments. “Visiting the study subjects at work and talking to their bosses is important.”
This also provides an impression of the environment which the manager works in, and can reveal a great deal about how their conflicts over roles play out.
Selvik believes it is important that managers have jobs which are suited to the way they respond and how they go about dealing with conflicting roles.