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Vol. IV (LXVI) No. 2/2014 01 – 14

Faculty trust, conflict and the use of knowledge in an international higher education context

Jonasson Charlottea*, Normann Jana, Lauring, Jakobb a: Psychology and Behavioural Sciences, School of Business and Social Sciences, Aarhus University,

Aarhus bBusiness Administration, School of Business and Social Sciences, Aarhus University, Aarhus


Few studies have examined group dynamics among faculty in higher education organizations. This is unfortunate since a well-functioning, collaborating faculty group has been shown to have a positive effect on both staff and student performance. Another important, but underexplored theme is the effect of university internationalization. In this study, we combine these two scarcely studied themes and focus on the role of interpersonal trust, group emotional conflict, and group task conflict in international university departments. Our findings reveal that while interpersonal trust is positively associated with the faculty members’ use of each other’s knowledge the opposite is true for group emotional conflict. We found no effect of group task conflict. But we found that the percentage of foreigners in a department negatively moderated the effect of interpersonal trust on knowledge use. Hence, the role of trust is less important for faculty’s use of each other’s knowledge resources in highly cultural diverse departments compared to less heterogeneous settings.

Keywords: Faculty in higher education; university internationalization; interpersonal trust; group emotional conflict; group task conflict

1. Introduction

Universities and other post-secondary education institutions are human-capital intensive organizations and it has been shown that as much as 80 percent of higher education cost is related to personnel (Harvey et al., 2006; Salaran, 2010). Due to this high expense, faculty group functioning and effective collaboration on teaching and research are becoming a top priority of higher education administrations. Moreover, research has shown that cohesive and well-functioning academic faculty groups provide better results as regards work satisfaction, academic faculty performance and student achievements (Barth, 1990; Wheelan & Kesselring, 2005; Wheelan & Tilin, 1999). Nonetheless, a number of studies have shown that many higher education institutions fail to sufficiently ensure interpersonal collaboration and social climate (Johnson, 1990; Perez et al., 2012; Wheelan & Kesselring, 2005). Especially, many post-secondary faculty groups could benefit from increased interpersonal trust and reduced conflicts (cf. Sergiovanni, 1992).

While collaboration in academic faculty groups is as important as ever, universities could be facing a number of growing challenges. Austin (2003) argues that at many places, the past reality of a homogeneous academic faculty composed of locally born teachers is rapidly phasing out. Accordingly, the increasing diversification of higher

* Corresponding Author: Tel. +45 87165834 E-mai address:

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education faculty could put new pressure on efforts to improve teacher collaboration and interpersonal relations (Keller, 2001; Young & Brooks, 2008). This development is driven by the emergence of an international academic labor market, international faculty mobility, and growing number of international students (Mamiseishvili & Rosser, 2010; Van De Bunt-Kokhus, 2000; Webber, 2012). Still, however, very little research has examined interpersonal relations in international higher education faculty groups (Crosling et al., 2008; Karuppan & Barari, 2010; Morrison et al., 2005; Paltridge et al., 2010).

In this study, we focus on the effect of interpersonal trust and group conflict on the faculty’s use of each other’s knowledge. With regard to trust, Van Maele and Van Houtte (2009) argue that while research on trust has a long tradition in organizational studies, this theme has achieved relatively little attention in educational organizations. Nonetheless, faculty trust is an important subject because trust is related to the effective functioning of the school (Bryk & Schneider, 2002; Kochanek, 2005; Louis, 2007). Another important concept is faculty group conflicts because this could potentially undermine school productivity (Wheelan & Tilin, 1999).

Knowledge is also important as it is becoming a vital resource in today’s organizations where learning is often at focus – not least in the educational sector (Blackmore et al., 2011). In recent years, university faculty has been facing highly complex problems, rapidly changing technologies and a dynamic growth and diversification of knowledge in terms of multidisciplinary and multinational concerns (Kanzler, 2010). In consequence, the individual academics will often have difficulties providing all the expertise necessary to plan and carry out teaching and research but must frequently confer each other and draw on the skills and experiences of colleagues in order to solve central everyday problems (Hara et al., 2003). Based on the above, the study of how trust and conflict influences the interpersonal use of knowledge in international higher education faculty groups can be argued to be relevant and novel.

1.1. Conceptualization

Interpersonal trust can be perceived as a psychological state of individuals involving confident, positive expectations about the actions of others (Dirks & Ferrin, 2001). Scholars in various disciplines have provided many different definitions of trust according to their perspective and research area. A number of different concepts, including willingness to be vulnerable (Mayer et al., 1995), expectation (Hosmer, 1995) and attitude (Giffin, 1967) have been used to define trust. Nonetheless, in a review article, Rousseau et al. (1998) found that most scholars investigating interpersonal trust relate the concept to some kind of psychological state of mind. Based on a thorough literature review, Rousseau and colleagues, in general terms, define trust as a psychological state comprising the intention to accept vulnerability based upon a positive expectation of the intentions or behavior of another. Accordingly, scholars seem to agree that positive expectations and suspension of uncertainty are central elements of the concept (De Jong & Elfring, 2010). Positive expectations refer to the belief that the actions of another will be beneficial or at least not detrimental, despite the possibility of being disappointed by these actions (Luhmann, 1988).

Group conflict is defined as the process arising from perceived incompatibilities or differences between group members (Greer et al., 2011). Research has suggested that conflict can have relational (affective) as well as task-related (cognitive) dimensions (De Dreu & Weingart, 2003). Group emotional conflict is related to personal clashes over values or personality (Jehn, 1995). This may create interpersonal frictions, tensions, animosity or annoyance among group members (Behfar et al., 2011). Consequently, while not being the complete opposite, emotional conflict should be negatively associated with interpersonal trust (Ancona & Caldwell, 1992; Pelled, 1996). Group task conflict concerns task goals or outcomes and is related to differing

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work-related ideas and opinions about the group’s task (Jehn, 1994). Hence, group task conflicts could be seen as disagreements about specific activities which group members must perform to advance a project. It includes such behaviors as discussing pros and cons, considering alternative courses of action or evaluating how conflicting evidence fits with the group’s decisions (Jehn, 1995).

To use knowledge is understood as bringing it to bear on a problem or task in a timely manner (Argote et al., 2000; Faraj & Sproull, 2000). However, using other’s knowledge often requires that group members engage in close interactions that allow them to observe and learn from each other (Janowicz-Panjaitan & Krishnan, 2009). Knowledge has been argued to consist of both explicit and tacit dimensions (Polanyi, 1997). Tacit knowledge is often described as residing in the background of our consciousness, enabling us to perform certain tasks and attend to specific problems. This type of knowledge, however, cannot be always be clearly articulated or codified as explicit knowledge (Staycey, 2001; Tsoukas, 1996). However, formal learning by doing (such as an apprenticeship situation) can also facilitate the transfer and use of tacit knowledge (Carlson et al., 2003).

1.2. Hypotheses

1.2.1. Trust and knowledge use

Trust has generally been found to positively influence cooperation (Cho & Park, 2011) and on-going relationships (Heavey et al., 2011). Trust among group members also enhances interpersonal helping behaviors (Choi, 2006). By enhancing collaborative processes, trusting groups can better manage the interdependencies between their respective expertise spaces (Chiocchio et al., 2011). Trust is also likely to promote recurrent cycles of successful cooperation among group members that set standards for acceptable behavior in a group (Ferrin et al., 2008). In this regard, Costa (2003) maintains that trust facilitates coordination among individuals because a high level of trust increases the likelihood that one will cooperate with other group members. In a school context, it has also been argued that trust is related to teachers’ collaboration (Tschannen-Moran, 2009) and a supportive organizational climate (Goddard et al., 2001; Hoy et al., 2002). A link between mutual respect (Hoe & McShane, 2010), strong social ties (Levin & Cross, 2004) and the sharing of knowledge has been established. Guzman and Wilson (2005) argue for a relation between seeing the value in knowledge sharing and mutuality, trust and respect. In a qualitative study of academics in the science discipline, Antal and Richebé (2009) found that the sharing of knowledge also involved an emotional dimension and the importance of the relationship itself, rather than being limited to the outcome of the exchange affected if knowledge was used across staff members. Accordingly, we present the first hypothesis:

Hypothesis 1: Interpersonal trust is positively associated with academic faculty interpersonal knowledge use.

1.2.2. Conflict and knowledge use

Emotional conflicts are generally perceived to have negative effects on interaction and individual well-being. Emotional conflict has for example been associated with breakdown in cooperation (Pondy, 1967). Emotional conflict is also negatively related to positive social processes (Behfar et al., 2011). Empirical evidence shows a relation between low dysfunctional conflict and knowledge sharing (Dougherty, 1992).

In comparison with emotional conflict, group task conflict is a more debated theme since both positive and negative effects have been found. Behfar et al. (2011) argue

Jonasson C., Normann J., Lauring J./Journal of Educational Sciences and Psychology 4

that group task conflict could stimulate members’ commitment to the group’s task in organizational settings. Group task conflict has also been found to increase involved information seeking, improve individual members’ ability to foresee problems and lead members to think about problems more carefully (Jehn & Bendersky, 2003; Nemeth et al., 2001). Moreover, group task conflict has been found to create stronger affective commitment to a task (Behfar et al., 2011).

On the other hand, group task conflict does not necessarily increase interaction and positive group processes, as some studies have suggested (Behfar et al., 2008). Despite a prevailing notion that group task conflicts benefit teams, De Dreu and Weingart’s (2003) meta-analysis showed a strong negative correlation between group task conflict and team performance plus member satisfaction. Accordingly, it may be argued that while it could have potential constructive implications, group task conflict is generally unhelpful for work groups (Chiocchio et al., 2011). In the case of university teachers, it could be speculated that if group members were to suspect their peers to have hidden agendas or personal gains in mind when proposing different conflicting ways of performing tasks, such as delegating resources for teaching or supervising, then the outcome of group task conflict could have a negative impact on academic faculty interpersonal knowledge use as negative emotions could arise (cf. Dirks & Ferrin, 2001; Van Maele & Van Houtte, 2009). Still, however, it is unlikely that group task conflict will be as negative for the use of each other’s knowledge as group emotional conflict. We thus present the following set of hypotheses: Hypothesis 2a: Group emotional conflict is negatively associated with academic faculty interpersonal knowledge use. Hypothesis 2b: Group task conflict is negatively associated with academic faculty interpersonal knowledge use. Hypothesis 2c: Group emotional conflict is more negatively associated with faculty interpersonal knowledge use than group task conflict.

1.2.3. The international environment

Very little research has examined the effect of cultural diversity in the educational sector (Morrison et al., 2005). This is unfortunate since increased student movement, labor market changes, rapid sector growth, equal opportunity demands and a pressure to internationalize education and research activities have combined to make universities some of the most heterogeneous organizations to date (Dimmock & Chan, 2008).

While increased diversity could have some negative implications for group functioning, such as increased fragmentation (Eddy & Gaston-Gayles, 2008; Lauring, 2009; Tsui et al., 1992), there could also be benefits. One benefit of having different nationalities is that there will be a greater variety of knowledge resources available. Cultural diversity may be perceived as a task-relevant diversity in organizations because international members have been drawn to the organization to use their specific abilities and therefore may offer complimentary information and skills (Hambrick et al., 1998). In other words, intercultural knowledge sharing should be more valuable than knowledge sharing in a more homogenous group because members are more likely to encounter unique knowledge that has not previously been shared (Ely & Thomas, 2001). Employees recruited from different parts of the world have different perspectives and possess different knowledge resources. Hence, the usefulness of variation in these kinds of organizations could well foster an environment where more available needed knowledge creates more effective knowledge sharing behaviour. Because the knowledge that individuals received from culturally dissimilar colleagues is more useful that what they get from their nationality peers, this type of diversity has been show to improve problem-solving (Watson et al.,

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1993), information processing (Phillips et al., 2004), decision making (Ely & Thomas, 2001), and creativity (McLeod & Lobe, 1992).

There is also another reason why much cultural diversity could benefit the use of knowledge to a gerater extentthan less cultural diversity. Faultline Theory (Lau & Murnighan, 1998) predicts that groups that are highly diverse will develop a shared culture of their own while e.g. university departments with few national groups will have nationality based subdivisions. Therefore much cultural diversity in a faculty group is better than little cultural diversity as this strengthens an overall departmental identity that will cut across national divides. Hence, there are several reasons to assume that trust and conflict will be less important with regard to the willingness to use each other’s knowledge in very heterogeneous university departments simply because the knowledge from foreigners is more valuable for improved results. Trust and conflict will, therefore, not have the same impacts as it would if the knowledge originated from a more similar and thus less valuable source. Hypothesis 3a-c: The percentage of foreigners moderates the relation between (a) interpersonal trust, (b) group emotional conflict and (c) group task conflict and the use of knowledge so that the effect of trust on knowledge use is less positive and the effect of conflict is less negative.

2. Methodology

2.1. Objective

Academics of science departments were targeted in this study. A database of e-mail addresses of academics in science departments in three large universities in Denmark was constructed. In total 16 departments were targeted ranging from traditional disciplines such as Chemistry and Physics to specializations such as Nanotechnology and Pharmacology.

The data was collected electronically and a commercial web survey software package was used to administer the questionnaire. The university affiliation of the investigators was identified as the official sender and the potential respondents were assured of anonymity and confidentiality as usual. The survey used advanced electronic mail functions that allowed participants to register their responses directly onto the form which then fed a database. A total of 1,022 academics were invited to participate in the survey and eventually, 489 responses were received amounting to a response rate of 47.8 per cent.

2.2. Participants

The majority of the respondents were associate or assistant professors (51.1%) and the respondents had an average period of employment of 7.59 years with their respective department (SD=9.19). Most academics were Danish citizens (62.9%), but a substantial minority was foreign nationals (37.1%), where respondents from non-EU countries made up 16.7 per cent and academics from other EU countries than Denmark represented 20.4 per cent of the sample. The number of respondents from each department ranged from 9 to 54, and the share of foreign national respondents from each department ranged from 14.3 per cent (4 of a total number of departmental respondents of 28) to 57.1 per cent (8 of a total of 14). Accordingly, the departments are culturally diverse. The average age of the academics was 37.05 years (SD=11.34) with a minimum departmental age range of 17 years (Physics & Nanotechnology) to a maximum departmental age range of 47 years (Physics).

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2.3. Instrument

The variables depicting the types of trust and conflict were ‘Interpersonal trust’, ‘Group emotional conflict’ and ‘Group task conflict’. A scale for ‘Knowledge used’ (bring knowledge to bear) was also included. All multi-item scales used a seven-point Likert-type scale with response categories ranging from (1) ‘strongly disagree’ to (7) ‘strongly agree’.

Interpersonal trust was gauged by a three-item scale by Martins et al. (2003). A sample item is ‘Given their track records, I see no reason to doubt my colleagues’ competence or preparation for work’ (alpha=.77). Group emotional conflict was measured by a four-item scale by Jehn (1995). Sample item: ‘There is a great deal of friction in our department’ (alpha=.93). Group task conflict was measured by a four- item scale by Jehn (1995). Sample item: ‘There are many differences of opinion regarding tasks in our department’ (alpha=.92). Knowledge used was measured by a four-item, five-point scale by Faraj and Sproull (2000). A sample item is: ’People in our department share their knowledge and expertise with one another’ (alpha=.80). Percentage of Foreign Nationalities was used as a moderator and was measured by a direct question ‘What is the percentage of foreign nationality staff members?’

3. Results

Sample means, standard deviations and zero-order Pearson correlations of all variables are provided in Table 1. One-sample t-tests showed that the mean scores for Knowledge used (t = 102.31, p<.001) was significantly higher than the midpoint of the respective scale. This indicates that the academics generally felt that they used their knowledge well in their workplace. The significant associations between Percentage of Foreign Nationality with the dependent variable; Knowledge Used (r = 0.22, p<.01), emphasize the need to make use of this variable as a moderator in the regression analysis.

Table 1. Means, Standard Deviations, and Correlations among the Variables

S. No Variables Mean SD 1 2 3 4 5

1 Knowledge used 5.17 1.10 1.00

2 Interpersonal trust 5.67 0.93 0.48** 1.00

3 Group task conflict 3.50 1.29 -0.42** -0.45** 1.00

4 Group Emotional conflict 3.13 1.46 -0.52** -0.49** 0.66** 1.00

5 Percentage of foreigners 21.49 14.63 0.22** 0.12* -0.17** -0.20** 1.00

* p<.05; ** p<.01;

The hypotheses were formally tested by way of hierarchical multiple regression (Table 2). The moderator variable Percentage of foreign nationality was entered in Step 1. There was a significant positive association between Percentage of foreign

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nationality and Knowledge used (beta = 0.22; p<.001). In Step 2, the three predictor variables were entered. This produced significant effects on the criterion variable which explains 30 percent of the variance in the variables depicting Knowledge used.

As displayed by Table 2, concerning the three variables depicting Interpersonal trust and Conflict, there was a positive relationship between Interpersonal trust and Knowledge used (beta = 0.26; p<.001), a non-significant negative relationship between Group task conflict and Knowledge used, and a significant negative relationship between Group emotional conflict and Knowledge used (beta = -0.34; p<.001). In Step 3, the interaction terms were entered. This only resulted in a significant relationship with one of the predictor variables. There was a negative significant association between Interpersonal trust x Percentage of foreigners with Knowledge used (beta = -0.13; p<.01). All F values for the criterion variables were statistically significant, indicating a proper fit between the regression model and the data.

Table 2. Results of Hierarchical Multiple Regression

Knowledge used

Step 1 Control

Percentage of foreigners 0.22***

Adjusted R2 0.05

Step 2

Trust 0.26***

Group emotional conflict -0.34***

Group task conflict -0.05

Interpersonal trust_Perc of foreigners_mod -0.13**

Group emotional conflict_Perc of foreigners_mod -0.02

Group task conflict_Perc of foreigners_mod -0.05

Adjusted R2 0.35

Change in R2 0.30

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Fig. 1: Moderation of the effect of Percentage of Foreigners on Knowledge used by Interpersonal trust

To explore the character of the moderating relationship detected, the significant interactions for Knowledge Used was plotted in Figure 1. This figure shows that percentage of foreigners moderates Interpersonal trust. For a higher percentage of foreigners, Interpersonal trust has a stronger positive association with Knowledge used than for a lower percentage of foreigners. In other words, the moderating effect of percentage of foreigners is stronger for respondents with higher percentage of foreigners than for respondents with lower percentage of foreigners, irrespective of whether the extent of Interpersonal trust used is low or high. Tests of the simple slope indicated that the linkage between Interpersonal trust and Knowledge used was significant both when the percentage of foreigners was high and low. Hence, of the presented hypotheses, we found support for Hypothesis 1, 2a, 2c and 3a. There was no support of hypotheses 2b, 3b, and 3c.

4. Discussions

In this study, we examined the association between trust/conflict and using each other’s knowledge in international educational departments. Our general expectation was that the interpersonal trust would positively affect the use of knowledge among the academic faculty whereas conflict would have the opposite effect. We also conjectured that with increased cultural diversity, the role of trust and conflict would be less prominent.

We generally found support for our hypotheses. There was a strong positive association between group interpersonal trust and the use of knowledge and a strong negative effect of emotional conflict and using knowledge. There was no significant effect of task conflict and using knowledge. Task conflict, hence, can be seen as less negative for using each other’s knowledge than emotional conflict, as predicted.

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This is in line with other studies on the relationships between the social organizational environment and knowledge sharing activities. Reychac and Weisberg (2009) found strong social relations to be positively associated with knowledge sharing. Hansen (1999) and Janowicz-Panjaitan and Krishnan (2009) found group trust to be positively associated with knowledge sharing in business organizations. In a university setting, Li et al. (2010) found group cohesiveness activities to be associated with knowledge sharing. Other studies have also found that conflict influences knowledge sharing behavior in a negative way in other types of organizations (Behfar et al., 2011; Dougherty, 1992).

We also found a negative moderating effect of percentage of foreigners on the association between interpersonal trust and knowledge used indicating that trust did not play an important a role in highly culturally diverse university departments. However, we did not find a moderating effect in relation to any of the conflict variables. While this is not surprising with regard to task conflict, as there was no direct effect either, it is somewhat surprising that the moderating effect is not found for group emotional conflict when it is found for interpersonal trust. This may indicate that although trust and emotional conflict are strongly negatively associated with each other, they are, after all, not a direct oppositional concept (Ancona & Caldwell, 1992; Pelled, 1996).

4.1. Limitations

As usual, there are a number of potential weaknesses of this investigation that could have biased the findings. This study used a cross-sectional research design, and causality cannot be determined. For better investigative control, a longitudinal design could have been applied, but that might have introduced other methodological problems such as low response rates (cf. Menard, 1991).

Since data were collected by cross-sectional self-reports, the results could have been biased by common method variance (CMV). This is a systematic measurement error emerging since the variance is attributable to the measurement method rather than to the constructs that the measures represent. For example, some sources of CMV result from the fact that the predictor and criterion variables are obtained from the same source or rater (Podsakoff et al., 2003). However, the general and automatic condemnation of cross-sectional self-report methods has been found exaggerated (cf. Crampton & Wagner, 1994; Lindell & Whitney, 2001; Spector, 2006) to the extent that it may have achieved the status of a methodological urban legend (Spector, 2006). The fact that the studied data were extracted from a larger investigation may have reduced the possibility for CMV to occur. The measurement of many variables is mixed together in a fashion that it may not be evident to respondents which groups of items measure predictor variables and which groups of items measure criterion variables. Besides, the electronic questionnaire also prevented respondents to go back to previous pages and edit answers once they had entered a new page. To further lessen the potential bias of CMV, a number of procedures were implemented in the larger study. As usual, the anonymity and confidentiality of the respondents were assured. Additionally, a few of the items also had reverse polarity. These design procedures may all have contributed to diminish effects of CMV (Podsakoff et al., 2003). To investigate the potential for remaining biases of CMV, Harman’s single factor test was applied (cf. Andersson & Bateman, 1997; Aulakh & Gencturk, 2000). The exploratory factor analysis of the items, corresponding to all the variables of the study, resulted in a four-factor, unrotated solution. Although one of the four factors explained more of the variance than the others, this may not suggest that CMV was a serious problem in this study (Podsakoff et al., 2003). Additionally, it has been argued that moderation effects, commensurate with the one we have found, cannot be caused

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by CMV (Chang et al., 2010). In conclusion, CMV should not have been an important problem in this study.

4.2. Implications

This study responds to a scarcity of research on trust/conflict and faculty knowledge use in international education institutions. The findings give rise to a number of theoretical and practical implications as well as suggestions for further research.

Little research has studied interpersonal trust and group conflict in relation to knowledge use among international faculty members. Consequently, the results of our study provide novel insights to be integrated in the theoretical discussion within the literature on the management of human resources in diverse, internationalized educational organizations. Especially the finding that the number of foreign faculty moderates the effect of knowledge sharing on trust is interesting as it suggests that university internationalization can actually have a positive and not a negative effect on the use of the internal knowledge resources available among various faculty members.

From a practical standpoint, our research may have several implications for higher education faculty human resource strategies. Our results indicate that internal knowledge use may be stimulated by high levels of interpersonal trust and low levels of group emotional conflict. Our study also shows that task conflict is unimportant to the use of each other’s knowledge. Hence, the management of educational institutions needs to increase the level of interpersonal trust and reduce the level of group emotional conflict in order to develop well-functioning and collaborating faculty teams. Finally, our study shows that the percentage of foreigners has a positive effect on knowledge use and that it makes interpersonal trust less important for knowledge sharing. Hence, the effort in relation to creating trust in academic organizations does not need to be as intensive in highly culturally diverse settings.

Interventions in order to develop the faculty group may be carried out at the individual, the team and the organizational level. At the individual level, recruitment of certain personality types as well as training, coaching and mentoring could assist in keeping trust high and conflicts low. At the team level, team building activities could improve social relations and clarify team member roles. Klein et al. (2009) argue that team building is especially effective in the case of teams facing emotional issues. At the organizational level, strategies and policies can be implemented to develop trust and counteract conflict. This can be done in the form of missions, evaluations and reward structures. Obviously, the best way to develop the faculty group is to apply individual, team and organizational interventions simultaneously.

Future studies may try to eliminate some of the weaknesses of the current study and extend its scope. For example, efforts could be spent to try to increase the response rate and may use multiple raters for assessing trust, conflict, and the use of knowledge. In this study, we focused on knowledge sharing at the departmental level. Future research could also extrapolate our findings to a broader (e.g. organizational or societal) context and examine whether trusting each other affects the use of knowledge between different groups. Finally, while internal knowledge use has been argued to be of great importance to academic work, internationalization and funding opportunities have made external contacts and interaction more and more common. A new worthwhile research endeavor could also be to assess the effect of trust and conflict on external knowledge use in higher education settings.

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