The Creative Upside of Conflict

2012 by Garza

Many of us shy away from conflict. We’re taught conflict avoidance from an early age. The lessons start with encouragement to play nice in the sandbox, and they continue in adulthood when our employers or managers evaluate us on our ability to get along with our colleagues and team members. You’ve probably seen collegiality or a synonym for it in competency models for most managerial or leadership positions.

Conflict, however, can be quite productive. An organization that isn’t reaching its potential often is harboring conflict beneath the surface. This culture of conflict avoidance makes people comfortable, if unsuccessful, and usually spells trouble in the long run.

In their book The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, Ronald Heifetz, Marty Linsky and Alexander Grashow contend that conflict, in fact, is an essential element of progress, and it is up to an effective leader to orchestrate the conflict to reach final resolution of complex challenges.

The authors liken conflict to the tension that exists between dissonance and consonance or harmony in music. They point out that few composers use only harmonious sounds in their pieces. Most use dissonance to create tension and to engage the listener in a journey to a pleasing resolution. They say that for a composer, “the art of harmony is the creative uses of dissonance and consonance, woven together to create tension, a sense of forward motion, resolution, and then tension again until, usually, there is a final resolution.”

Similarly, to produce forward motion in an organization that faces a complex challenge, a leader needs to tease out the unacknowledged conflict within the organization – bring it up from where it lurks beneath the surface – and orchestrate the resulting creative tension to reach an authentic, as opposed to an artificial, resolution.

The downside of conflict avoidance is evident in other ways as well. Consider, for example, how it can negatively affect “brainstorming” – the process for generating creative thinking that Alex Osborn of the global advertising firm B.B.D.O. first came up with in his book, Your Creative Power, in 1948. His idea, of course, was to put people in a room to brainstorm a problem instead of sending them off to work on their own. The collaboration, he said, produces a greater number of creative solutions and does it more quickly.

For Osborne, the most important rule for successful brainstorming is to avoid negative feedback or criticism. Praise encourages creativity, he said, while “discouragement nips it in the bud.”

An article in the January 30, 2012 issue of The New Yorker (“Groupthink,” by Jonah Lehrer) tells us Osborn got it wrong. Studies done since Osborn’s day show that brainstorming using Osborn’s feel-good rule is considerably less effective than collaboration that encourages debate and criticism. Osborn thought that discouraging feedback inhibits imagination. The work of today’s academics has shown that debate and criticism actually stimulate creativity.

If you stop to think about it, this makes sense. When you hear something that is unfamiliar or possibly wrong or inaccurate, you naturally want to dig in, to find out more, to reassess your assumptions and think critically about what you’ve heard. A process that encourages this sort of exchange, while possibly unpleasant, will likely produce better outcomes than one that insulates the feelings of the participants against the chill of criticism.

Neither the authors of The Practice of Adaptive Leadership nor the studies that are the subject of The New Yorker article intend to promote conflict at the expense of basic principles of respectful communication. The ability to manage your emotions during conflict and other aspects of emotional intelligence are of the utmost importance. Still, it is worth pausing to reconsider how we look at conflict and to see it as a valuable asset rather than something to be avoided.

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