The Case for Conflict

In the nonprofit world, we have a tendency to want everything to be warm and fluffy all the time. Sometimes we deal with gritty issues, but they’re touching and moving, and it makes you feel good to make a difference. I’ve heard a lot of people complain that sometimes the work environment doesn’t reflect that positivity. “Why can’t we all just get along? Why can’t be FRIENDS?” The answer? If you never argued, you’d never get anything done.

Okay, so you’d probably still get work done. But it probably wouldn’t be the best work your team is capable of creating. In the past few weeks I’ve started listening to the HBR IdeaCast podcast from the Harvard Business Review. (Side note: I put these little 10-20 minute gems on par with TED Talks. They’re informative, entertaining and full of brilliant ideas. Please start listening immediately.) I recently listened to an episode that was published back in April, an interview with Leigh Thompson, who’s a professor at Kellogg School of Management and author of Creative Conspiracy: The New Rules of Breakthrough Collaboration.

Thompson talked about how conflict can increase creativity. She talked about the value of conflict on a team. It’s not really a new concept in management, but I really like the way she phrased the value of conflict:

On the one hand, conflict can bring a team to its knees with back biting and excessive argumentation, and back stabbing. And that’s kind of referred to as the bad type of conflict. Some people call it personality conflict where you attack the person.

The good type of conflict is what’s known as cognitive conflict, and that’s in some sense kind of what scientists should be doing. So they kind of debate ideas fiercely, but they don’t attack the intentions or personality of the person. There’s a lot of research in the management science literature that says, gosh, the only way you avoid group think and excessive like-mindedness is to have some kind of conflict in a team or group.

 I would definitely encourage you to listen (or read – the link I gave above includes a transcript) to everything Thompson says about conflict enabling creativity. It will really help you reframe the way you think about team conflict. And the important thing to take away here is to encourage cognitive conflict at your organization, not just between staff members, but with the board of directors as well. Make it clear that personality conflicts are unacceptable, but that your organization actually benefits from the diversity of ideas that healthy debate creates.