Conflict in the Workplace: Does it Impede or Enhance Creativity?
Let us cut to a team meeting during your first month of work. It is the end of a productive work day, and everyone is in a great mood. Your boss has just proposed a new idea. Your team members are on board with it, but you spot a flaw. Things have been good so far; you have managed to carry out your tasks effectively, and relate well with your co-workers. You have been a picture of competency. But your boss can be unpredictable, and even volatile at times. You want to be sure to maintain your good standing.
Should you say something? Should you articulate your niggling doubt about your boss’s idea, when you do not have much experience to begin with? You could be wrong. And your boss does not like people who waste her time.
Your reaction to this situation might have a lot to do with the way you view conflict: is conflict helpful, or is it damaging? Are conflict and debate something that need to be bubble-wrapped and handled carefully, or should they be embraced?
Conflict: A Source of Anxiety or Creativity?
Tip-toeing around conflict rather than addressing it can be viewed as a way of keeping your anxiety about being evaluated at bay. Techniques like brainstorming, for example, involve encouragement to come up with as many ideas as possible in a group, but simultaneous discouragement from criticizing others’ ideas.
Dissent and debate can actually result in a rather fortunate by-product: creativity. There is legitimacy to fear conflict, but it can also lead to innovation. Baqutayan (2014) outlines Jehn’s (1995) summarization of two major kinds of conflict, one healthier than the other:
Destructive, or relationship/emotional conflict, is due to friction between individuals. Destructive conflict is personal, and there is animosity involved. It is important to be vigilant of signs of conflict taking an ugly turn. Constructive, or healthy conflict, on the other hand, is conflict over the content of decisions taken by team members of an organization. It involves differing perspectives. When you debate with your team members on which decision is more fruitful, your actions stem from a similar purpose: to strengthen your team, project, or organization. While destructive conflict needs to be managed, constructive conflict is a valuable way to promote innovation.
The Psychology of Conflict in Group Creativity
Charlan Nemeth, a Professor at UC Berkeley, led a study that examined whether conflict played a role in group creativity. She conducted the study in both the US and France to ensure that her results were not just a reflection of one country’s values or beliefs about conflict. The participants were divided into three groups: the group that brainstormed, the group that debated, and the group that received minimal instruction.
The “brainstorming” group were given traditional brainstorming instructions, which included instructions to not criticize their own and other people’s ideas. The debating group were given instructions similar to the brainstorming group, except they were encouraged to debate and criticize. The minimal group were given no specific instructions about criticism, and asked to come up with as many ideas as they could.
The brainstorming group performed better than the minimal group. However, the group where conflict and debate were encouraged outperformed both the brainstorming group and the minimal group. This was true of both studies in the US and France. Of all possible explanations for these findings, Nemeth (2004) highlighted two possible reasons:
Dissent Need Not be Persuasive, but can Still be Productive
When Nemeth discusses the role of dissent and debate in creativity, she distinguishes it from persuasion. While the views of the minority at the workplace may not necessarily “persuade” the majority, they do spark divergent thinking (i.e, the thought process that encourages exploration of creative ideas).
Conflict Encourages Complexity
Conflict motivates the group to consider alternative sources and possibilities, rather than growing complacent with the same set of information. It activates a critical norm, over the norm to match and concede. Collectively, you weave together a more comprehensive view, and emerge with better quality decisions. The next time you have an opinion that could cause conflict, ask yourself: but is it constructive conflict? If it is, how can you use it, rather than slink away from it, to promote innovation? By tactfully engaging in constructive conflict yourself, you may even be able to shift your work group's norms and fuel an environment where healthy conflict is embraced.
Rewinding back to the team meeting: what if your boss had explicitly encouraged appropriate work conflict? What if she appreciated people who took a stand, whatever it was, provided they supported their position with credible facts or logic? Would you have been more likely to speak up? Would you and the group have benefitted in some way, whether you were right or wrong?
Baqutayan, S. M. (2014). The Relationship Between Conflict Management and Innovation Performance. European Journal of Business and Management, 6, 90-95.
Heathfield, S. M. (October 12, 2016). How to Encourage Meaningful, Needed Conflict at Work. The Balance. Retrieved from http://www.thebalance.com.
Nemeth, C. J., & Goncalo, J. A. (2011). Rogues and heroes: Finding value in dissent. In Jetten, J., & Hornsey, M. J., Rebels in groups: Dissent, deviance, difference and defiance (pp. 17-35). West Sussex, U.K: Wiley-Blackwell.
Nemeth, C. J., Personnaz, B., Personnaz, M., & Goncalo, J. A. (2004). The liberating role of conflict in group creativity: A study in two countries. European Journal of Social Psychology, 34(4), 365-374.
Runco, M. A., & Yoruk, S. Creativity and conflict. In I. Dubina, Encyclopedia of creativity, invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship (pp. 542-545). New York: Springer.