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Robinson School of Business Thought Leader Uncategorized

The “Right” Amount of Conflict


Robert (Rob) Williams, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Ethics and Corporate Responsibility at the Robinson College of Business.

It makes sense in terms of our psychology  to suppress all conflict in order to avoid the major and destructive conflicts. Because we still have parts of evolutionary brain functions operating, we tend to be better equipped to move away from threat and danger than we are to see opportunity or improvement and move toward it. The question for most organizational leaders is how to have the right amount of conflict to spark creativity and not let the fire burn too hot or spread too widely. Research into group dynamics and what I have observed in working with executive teams in organizations suggests that:

  • There is more suppressed conflict within groups—including high functioning executive teams—than anyone will admit.
  • Leaders spend significant amounts of time “dampening” conflict, usually by working with individuals rather than the group as a whole. Group members spend equal amounts of time “dampening” conflict with the leader by publicly agreeing and privately opposing.
  • Leaders and members of high performing teams think they “don’t have the time or energy” to have conflict so they have to keep it suppressed. This becomes the classic “spend time now or spend time later” dilemma in organizational development. Suppressed conflict, left unattended, will sap performance.
  • Conflict that is suppressed spreads faster and more widely than conflict that is openly discussed among the principals to the conflict.
  • Suppressed conflict has a cost and rarely any benefit such as prompting creativity and innovation.

One international foundation, known for their good works for children and families, viewed internal conflict as, according to one widely circulated HR memo, “disruptive to the collaborative and team spirit we expect of all employees” and “disloyal to the founder of this foundation and his vision.” Unfortunately, the written policy became a cultural norm where employees would use this policy as a justification to squash the conflict. According to an anonymous survey I conducted, even raising questions about the policy was viewed as a violation. A foundation that prided itself on bringing about change through its ideas soon became outdated with ideas different from those of its grantees.

The Importance of Mid-Range Conflict
So what is the right amount of conflict to fuel creativity? If the conflict continuum discussed above were given some point values—with extremes of major conflict a “10” and extremes of minor conflict a “1”—then the creativity begins to emerge at about a 3 or 4 and begins to disappear at about a 7 or 8, with conflict from 5-6 the most desirable for fueling creativity.

This “mid-range” conflict has enough importance, enough personal investment in different opinions and views, enough emotion, and enough challenges to current or acceptable ways of doing things that it “drives” people out of safe and familiar ways of thinking and doing. Mid-range conflict carries enough negative consequences to serve as a counter balance to the risks associated with breaking organizational norms, appearing stupid, offending others, public humiliation, and challenging power.

Keith James, Patrick Lencioni, Robert Sutton and several other organizational psychologists and management experts have written about the importance of mid-range conflict in fostering creativity within high performing groups. For example, mid-range conflict is important in setting organizational goals and holding each other accountable; gathering and communicating a wide range of conflicting data sources; and ensuring that all perspectives are heard (a key to motivation and implementation).

Major conflict, in almost all cases, impedes creativity and innovation. Given the highly personal, emotional and intractable nature of major conflict, arguments move away from changes needed in the organization to personal attacks. These attacks ultimately reduce trust, dampen candid dialogue, and limit creativity.

Some organizations have been successful in maintaining a mid-range level of conflict. Here’s what they learned:

  • It’s not solely a leadership responsibility. Instead, every member of the organization has some responsibility to speak up, even disagree, both with peers and superiors. After several incidences of administering incorrect dosages of drugs and even the amputation of the wrong limb, one hospital needed to create “Please Ask” training sessions to break the culture of doctors being perceived as always being right and nurses not having the right to object.
  • You need “devil’s advocates”. A position created in 1587 by the Catholic Church, a devil’s advocate would argue against the canonization of a candidate for sainthood. Organizations and the leaders seeking more creativity and innovation need more people questioning standard practices and norms. Rather than allowing the natural “devil’s advocates” to emerge—and then be scapegoated for their negative views—organizations desiring mid-range conflict appoint them, and then make sure there is “absolution” for them, especially when the idea they argued most strongly against becomes a new practice.
  • Develop norms and ethics around conflict. During a lean period of my consulting work I ended up working with a “manufactured housing association” and the mobile home salespeople who made up their board.  They clearly wanted to improve their association, their board governance and even their own professional development. When I confessed my stereotypes of mobile home salespeople. The association president said, “When you do something that everyone thinks is good for the community—schools, churches, civic clubs—you don’t have to do things right. When you do something that society looks down on, you better do it right.” In the military, any subordinate can say to a superior: “Permission to speak freely?” If granted, the subordinate is free to question an order without being viewed as breaking the chain of command.
  • Practice relative analysis. In another organization, the practice of “relative analysis” in which critics focused on relative strengths and weakness that exist for all ideas became known as “Moonlight and Mackerel” sessions in honor of early 19th century Virginia politician John Randolph who described a political rival as “like rotten mackerel by moonlight, he shines and stinks.” More graphically, an executive leadership team encouraged conflict to spark creativity but had a collection of rubber novelty replicas of distasteful digestive by-products in the conference room that people could throw on the table when they thought someone was making the conflict too personal or becoming too emotional.

Getting better at managing conflict, especially in the mid-range, will prompt the people around you to be more creative and your organization will be more innovative. Respecting conflict, just as we respect fire, will let you access the benefits while still recognizing the danger. But even leaders successful at managing conflict in the mid-range report that they remain uncomfortable in the presence of conflict. “I always want to find conflict a little distasteful, even with its importance to building effective teams,” said one CEO. “Enjoying conflict just for the sport of arguing and winning and losing is destructive.”


Robert (Rob) Williams, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Ethics and Corporate Responsibility at the Robinson College of Business at Georgia State University. Before joining GSU, Dr. Williams served as Associate Director at the UGA Fanning Institute where he initiated several international leadership development programs in healthcare, higher education, environment and philanthropy. He consults regularly on leadership, group dynamics, change management and organizational psychology and has been a partner with Triangle Associates in Chapel Hill, N.C for 20 years. A former Associate Director of Duke University’s Pew Center for the Health Professions, Dr. Williams is a Social Psychologist holding a Ph.D. in Human and Organizational Development from The Fielding Institute.

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