Harness the Power of Conflict to Spur Innovation & Productivity

Leading this post with reasons why your team should act to end or prevent negative outcomes from conflict would be redundant. Throughout other posts and Resologics articles, and within the common literature in this field of study, the consequences of poorly managed conflict for business teams are clear.

But what about the other side of the conflict equation - the side where teams of people anticipate this powerful "conflict" tool and use it to their advantage to increase innovation and productivity? Does this practice really hold water?

The debate (constructive controversy) around the use of conflict as a tool is this:

Although conflict may be an important tool (because of the potential constructive outcomes) it is rarely built into business teams operating culture because of the feared downside. Is there really an upside? To use, or not to use, constructive conflict in your team? That is the question.

Common Names for the Type of Conflict in Question Here:

  • Constructive Controversy
  • Cognitive Conflict
  • Task Conflict
  • Intellectual Conflict
  • Constructive Conflict
  • Cognitive Confrontation
constructive conflict in teams

Our Conclusion - after studying the research, talking with business leaders, and working in the field:

Constructive Conflict is an extremely valuable tool that can help business teams enhance performance when it is actively and thoughtfully engaged in. The unplanned for and haphazard use of conflict within teams can sometimes enhance performance, yet carries with it the greater risk of negative outcomes when compared to anticipated and structured intellectual conflict interactions. Without some constructive conflict planning, teams tend towards conflict avoidance and accomodating behavior that can lead to stagnation and destructive conflicts.

What does this look like in practice? Check out our SERVICES page for more information.

The balance of this post is dedicated to backing up (and questioning) this conclusion in the form of excerpts from research, citations of additional sources of reading, etc... If you have additional research to include, please point us that way.

Discussion, Excerpts and Research:
Positive and Negative Impacts of Using Conflict as a Tool in Teams

"How Does Cognitive Conflict in Design Teams Support the Development of Creative Ideas?" Petra Badke-Schaub, Gabriela Goldschmidt, Martijn Meije. Creativity and Innovation Management. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Volume 19.2 (June 2010): 119–133. The main finding is that, in contrast with reports in previous research, the groups with higher innovation and functionality scores collaborated less than their peers in the low rating groups on these parameters. We interpret these results as signifying that creative performance in teams is not achieved mainly by agreement but needs cognitive confrontation.

"Energizing Learning: The Instructional Power of Conflict." David W. Johnson, Roger T. Johnson. Educational Researcher. American Research Association. http://edr.sagepub.com/content/38/1/37.short  ".... Constructive controversy is an instructional procedure that is designed to create intellectual conflict among students and that meets these criteria. The authors of this article summarize the theory underlying constructive controversy and review the results of their meta-analysis of the validating research. The positive outcomes indicate that intellectual conflict can have important and positive effects on student learning and well-being." 

"When And Why Creativity‐Related Conflict With Coworkers Can Hamper Creative Employees' Individual Job Performance." Onne Janssena, Ellen Giebelsb. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology. 22.5 (2013): 574-587. "We examined when and why focal employees' creativity-related conflict with coworkers is related to their individual job performance. As hypothesized, a survey among 113 employees in 14 manufacturing work groups showed that creativity-related conflict with coworkers escalates into dysfunctional relationship conflict when focal employees have low rather than high trust in those coworkers."

"Workplace Conflict And How Business Can Harness It To Thrive." CPP Global Human Capital Report. (July 2008). (Study commissioned by CPP, OPP and Fellipelli - all conflict management firms)

  • "Roughly three quarters of workers reported positive outcomes that resulted from conflict – results that in all likelihood would not have been produced if conflict was not initiated."
  • "Among all employees, 76% have seen conflict lead to a positive outcome, such as better understanding of others (41%) or a better solution to a workplace problem (29%). This figure rises to 81% and 84% in the US and Brazil, respectively – the countries where training is most common. Belgium and France, where employees experience the least training, also have the lowest incidence of positive outcomes. This shows a clear link between training in conflict management and conflict’s impact as a catalyst for positive change."

"Conflict and Creativity in Groups." Lisa Troyer, Reef Youngreen. Journal of Social Issues. 65.2 (June 2009): 409–427. "Consultants and researchers have long recognized the debilitating effects that conflict between group members can have on both group and individual outcomes. Yet less attention has been paid to the important role that conflict may play in helping generate innovative solutions to ill-structured problems. Furthermore, conflict (properly managed) is critical to the avoidance of groupthink (i.e., the tendency to sacrifice quality decision making and problem solving for the sake of consensus and conflict avoidance). What strategies can group members use to incorporate conflict, or more specifically, dissent in group problem solving? We argue that the delivery of dissenting opinions (negative evaluations) affects the extent to which dissent fosters creativity. We report the results of an experiment in which the target of negative evaluations was varied (e.g., source of an idea vs. idea itself ) and compared to a condition in which no negative evaluations were incorporated. The results show that (1) creativity is higher in the conditions involving idea-targeted negative evaluations than source-targeted or no negative evaluations; (2) negative evaluations from others increase in conditions in which there are source-targeted negative evaluations and idea-targeted negative evaluations, compared to no negative evaluations; and (3) group members report higher levels of satisfaction when working under conditions involving idea-targeted negative evaluations, compared to source-targeted or no negative evaluations. We discuss the implications of this research for organizational settings, with particular attention to how they might inform the design of group decision support systems." 

"The Virtue and Vice of Workplace Conflict: Food For (pessimistic) Thought." Carsten K.W. De Dreu. Journal of Organizational Behavior. 29.1 (January 2008): 5–18. "Many authors, myself included, have suggested that workplace conflict may be beneficial to the organization. I argue that the support for this conclusion is rather weak. A selective and necessarily limited review of the literature shows that: (1) the positive functions of conflict are found only under an exceedingly narrow set of circumstances, (2) the conclusion that (particular forms of) conflict and conflict management has positive functions can be criticized on methodological grounds, (3) even under favorable circumstances a number of serious negative functions can be identified as well, (4) negative functions easily outweigh positive functions, prohibiting the emergence of ‘positive workplace conflict’ (where conflict has predominantly positive consequences), and (5) organizations need cooperative conflict management not because it brings positive conflict, but because it prevents workplace conflict to hurt too much."