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Joanna Knight

Berkshire Consultancy


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How to hit the sweet spot between conflict and new ideas


Every team is made up of many different personalities, all with their own aspirations, ideas, preferences, and a host of different experiences. Each of these individuals could hold the key to unlocking a difficult problem or providing an innovative way to approach a task.  Or even better, the unique combination of ideas and experience in your team can be used creatively to innovate and problem solve.  There is a vast amount of research that highlights the importance of giving time and space for divergent thinking, diverse opinions and challenge, creating an innovative organisation and for creative problem solving. But will disagreeing with someone really help sharpen both of your thinking and get a better result?

Unfortunately, research suggests that conflict, in nearly all situations, is negative. It shuts down the cognitive system, impedes information processing and even  in situations where  conflict has helped a team, the perception of their own performance is usually low. So, in its most extreme form, conflict can make employees feel they have done a bad job even when they haven’t!

Traditionally, conflict within teams can be categorised as either ‘relationship conflict’ (EG. personal taste, preference, values, style) or ‘task conflict’ (EG. procedures, policies, interpretation of facts). Low levels of task conflict can aid creative activity and divergent thinking, while even the smallest levels of relationship conflict have been found to have a profoundly negative effect on team dynamic, productivity, and satisfaction. Unfortunately, unless a team has pre-existing high levels of trust, openness and feelings of psychological safety, task conflict can lead to relationship conflict.

So how can Managers and Leaders be proactive in avoiding unnecessary conflict in their teams? How can you find the right balance between getting a wide range of ideas and opinions and mitigating against conflict arising from differences in opinion?

The ‘ideas risk analysis

Firstly, a manager needs to be able to differentiate between routine and non-routine tasks. On routine tasks (especially ones that fit in to a bigger overall system), there should be no conflict between employees. The task is set, a procedure exists and we all know what the outcome is and what the task is for. This does not mean that procedures and tasks should not be unchallenged but just that this is a separate task to completing the job itself.

On non-routine tasks there is clearly a benefit to gathering a diverse section of ideas. But before this is done a manger needs to think clearly on the end result and consider how much time should be put aside for this. The more complex the problem, the more input you may need from your team- but at the same time, how valuable is the result? A new filing system could turn into a complex issue that may not deserve a whole days meeting, or on the other hand it may actually deserve more.  Mangers need to be clear with their team about what is actually at stake, how difficult (non-routine) the task is and roughly the amount of time you expect it to take.  By starting with the end result in mind and doing a risk analysis of how much conflict you can allow, (considering the type of task and how great the reward is) managers to be more specific about input and importance before approaching a problem with their team

Common values and goals

Shared values can help organisations pull in the same direction, set objectives and give a sense of purpose. Setting organisational values is a common practice, why not set values for long term projects or even difficult meetings?  By setting out the types of behaviours that are valued before solving a problem, a manger can help set the tone for a meeting and affect the outcome. For example ‘I believe that to solve this problem correctly we are going to have to be detail orientated’ or ‘We really are looking for an innovative solution, this is going to require us to think more creatively on this one’.

The University of Pennsylvania in 2000 ran experiments on eighty-eight teams of five, working together as consulting teams for various organisations over a fourteen week period. As well as looking at different conflicts that arose, they measured types of working styles that were valued in project teams and their effects on performance. The ages of the groups were very similar (early twenties) and the groups where not widely diverse in nationality. So these results should be used as just an illustration of the point.

  • Innovativeness, Outcome orientation and Team orientation all had a positive effect on object performance.
  • Stability and aggressiveness had a positive effect on perceived performance.
  • Supportiveness had a positive effect on Satisfaction.
  • Detailed orientation had a positive effect on both object performance and perceived performance, Decisiveness had a positive effect on all three.

The values that boost perceived performance or satisfaction of a team but do not increase objective performance should not  be over looked. The research focused on a one off short term project rather than teams working together over long periods of time. In a real team environment, satisfaction or perception of the team’s performance becomes more important as it starts to affect how the team works together over the long run. It is also important to consider the type of problem that is being solved and what values you think will get the best result.

Conflict can be dangerous in the workplace. It can slow things down, create negative feelings between employees and stop the right solution being found. But most of all conflict can build, escalate and spread to other individuals and parts of the business.  The aim of this article was to highlight the importance of pre-empting and planning for conflict so that teams can benefit from each other’s ideas and opinions. The key is not to shy away from complex solutions solved by the many but to know the ‘when’ and the ‘how’, as the rewards can outweigh the risks. 

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Joanna Knight


Read more from Joanna Knight

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