Quarrel, discord, conflict... these are not exactly words that you would associate with great teamwork. Because we learned to listen to each other, to defer our judgment and to put our personal emotions aside in order to reach that holy ‘common goal’. Always head in the same direction, shouldn’t we? Wrong, as it turns out. Recent scientific research has identified that a good conflict will increase our amount of creativity.

 

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Huh? How about that? Should we put on our combat shoes to work on innovation and change? Get rid of kindness and empathy? Will cursing and barking become the new standard? We’re not that far yet, luckily. First, it is important to make a distinction between two types of conflict.

On the one hand you have relational or interpersonal conflicts. As the term implies, these are clashes between individuals or groups at the level of personal relationships. When Kate hates Dorothy as she flirts constantly with Bruno. Or George being jealous of Vincent because he is convinced that he has a lot more capabilities for that coveted new promotion. No, these kinds of wars are bad for just about all facets of teamwork and mainly result in negative emotions such as stress, frustration and anxiety. And there is hardly any exchange of information, not to mention the total lack of willingness to listen to each other. Not a good idea.  

Should we put on our combat shoes to work on innovation and change? Will cursing and barking become the new standard?

On the other hand we have task-oriented conflicts. These refer to disagreements in opinions, views and ideas around a particular common task the team should accomplish and/or the way the task should be implemented. Task-oriented conflicts are exclusively limited to the work to be accomplished by the team and do not focus on individuals and their relationships. It may sound strange and contradictory, but this type of conflict seems to stimulate the creativity of the team and the individual team members. And there are a couple of good reasons for that.

First, the conflict will force the team members to seek more and better information in order to reinforce their own arguments. And the greater the knowledge about the subject, the more promising and useful ideas will be conceived. At the same time, they’re also obliged to closely listen to their opponents’ arguments. That way, they will be required to refine their arguments, which again will make them more focused and better prepared.

The greater the knowledge about the subject, the more promising and useful ideas will be conceived.

Task-oriented conflicts also ensure that (sometimes outdated) objectives are questioned again or that old challenges will be revised. Are the targets and objectives still up-to-date? Do yesterday’s solutions still answer today’s questions? A great way to avoid status quo situations that inhibit change and innovation. 

Now should you – as a team leader - create the greatest possible conflicts to increase the creativity of your team? Not quite... because further research has shown that the potential for generating innovative ideas is at its highest when the task conflicts are of a "moderate" level. Too small conflicts on the one hand do not have the power to stimulate the creative spark, while big task-oriented conflicts might often turn into relational conflicts. And we don’t want that, do we? 

So, dear manager or team leader, don’t always try to instantly solve a good “moderate” task-oriented conflict. Let the fire burn and fuel the creative minds of your team. But keep an eye on it, because no one wants to see the cosy campfire suddenly turning into a huge volcano.

  Walter Vandervelde


 

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