Managing The Balance Between Conflict and Creativity

Creativity.  Innovation.  Change.  These words represent the standard demands of our current workplaces.  Organizations have spent millions of dollars and countless hours attempting to infuse employees with the mindset and techniques required to live and breathe these values.

But the very fuel that feeds these familiar mandates, however, inevitably produces conflict.  Individuals develop new ideas that clash with the tried and true.  Department innovators step on toes outside their functional domain.  Project teams bicker as they identify requirements and solutions.  And employees compete for control in the leadership vacuum left by right-sized organizations.

At best, theses conflicts provide improved results and opportunities to learn.  At worst, when conflicts are too high or become personalized, they destroy individual self-esteem, increase tension within work teams, and decrease participation and productivity.  Whether conflict affects everyone in the organization, or just one employee, how we manage its resolution is critical to maintaining a creative, collaborative culture.  Especially during change initiatives,  sustaining a atmosphere of constructive conflict is essential to moving beyond resistance to true problem-solving.

Psychologists long have known that the absence or removal of conflict creates conditions where there is much less urgency, complete indifference to find and consider alternative ways of doing things, and no real inclination for different groups or departments to pull together toward a common goal.  In contrast, researchers also have found that stimulating conflict when it is absent may increase cognitive flexibility as well as the ability to deal with complex and contradictory information.

This poses a difficult challenge for change leaders as they try to maintain the right balance and intensity of conflict.  Too often, project managers avoid or suppress conflict in the effort to drive toward results.  This arises from the mistaken belief that results are more likely if conflict and dissention are overlooked in favor the “more important,” team objectives. On the other hand, provoking conflict only for the sake of resolving it may backfire and cause employees to retreat further into rigid, positional behavior.

In order to increase creative thinking, however, resolving conflict may be potentially premature and counterproductive.  When project managers try to resolve conflict too fast, it may decrease the enthusiasm and energy needed for innovation as well as breed disaffection or even withdrawal among many project team members.  Often, quick resolution constrains decision quality, deepens personalized conflict, and even suppresses information that might significantly impact business results.

When conflict is allowed to escalate to ideal intensity, however, it produces many benefits.  Conflict makes underlying issues explicit and can provide the motivation and strength to deal with tough problems.  It enhances people’s understanding of real interests, goals, and needs and stimulates continued communication around those issues.  Most importantly, it prevents premature, and misdiagnosed resolution of problems.

Before learning how to resolve conflict, however, project managers must learn how to think about it.  Conflict is not bad or good, conflict simply is.  If forced to choose, however, all conflict is good.  Even the most destructive, personal, hair-raising conflict provides valuable information that can enhance decisions and build stronger consensus.  The complaints, whining, negativity, nitpicking, and bullying provide important data that will eventually increase flexibility, innovation, and improvement.

In order to achieve higher levels of performance, project leaders must create opportunities for conflict to occur.  A conflict culture must be anchored by managers who learn how to see through the haze of disaffected behavior, listen, and accept different points of view.  Creativity, innovation, and flexibility will thrive when managers model collaborative behavior and guide employee development through effective mediation.

Opening Channels of Communication

The first step to maintaining the right level of organization conflict is to model the behaviors that encourage constructive disagreement and collaborative solutions.  To establish this environment, managers must demonstrate the ability to listen, confront, and collaborate.

Whether in conflict with another party or mediating a dispute between two parties, the first step we often take toward resolution is to offer additional information intended to demonstrate the logic and reasoning that supports our view of a fair solution.  When the parties remain unconvinced, we typically try harder to convince them by persuading, arguing, manipulating, sulking, or withdrawing from the interaction.  Very often, this process proves time-consuming and frustrating, and the conflict ends without a satisfactory resolution.  Or the conflict ends when we use our managerial authority to arbitrate a decision.  In either case, all parties walk away from the interaction thinking, “Why don’t they listen to me?”

Exactly.  Listening is the key to maintaining a productive level of conflict and ultimately, to constructive and well-timed resolution.  The problem in conflict, however, is not whether the other party listens to us, but rather whether we listen to and understand the other party’s perspective.  Only after we have listened to the other party will that party want to listen to us.  Only after the other party feels understood will he or she want to understand and be influenced by us.

By seeking first to identify and understand the needs and interests of the other party, we create an environment that increases the chances of resolving the dispute in a way that is satisfactory to all parties involved.  Listening lets the conflict take its natural course by giving the other party permission to disagree, express strong opinions, and demonstrate a passion for their ideas.  It does not try to resolve conflict too soon, and often, does not try to resolve conflict at all.  It demonstrates a respect for individual differences and encourages an environment based understanding.  Listening also helps achieve a true “win-win” resolution by helping the other party identify the criteria that defines their “win.”  In addition, the trust and relationship bonding that occurs as a result of this process will prepare the other party to listen to our needs.

A second critical skill required to model the behaviors of constructive conflict is confrontation.  One of the more significant reasons conflicts become destructive is because we avoid them.  We are afraid of hurting feelings, injuring self-confidence, or being impolite, and sometimes we are not sure whether it is a problem of theirs or a problem of ours.

In order to receive the benefits of conflict, however, we must create opportunities for divergent interaction.  Confrontation allows us to keep problems on the table.  It forces issues to the surface and generates dialogue.  Constructive confrontation communicates the problem, but also demonstrates our continued desire to listen to the other party.  By engaging in face-to-face interaction, managers demonstrate mutual respect, the willingness to explore new ideas, and a commitment to agenda-free resolution.

Finally, collaboration is the process of ensuring that both parties in a conflict benefit from the interaction.  Project managers must model this win-win thinking by not rushing to a compromise solution just to move forward.  They must insist on agreements that all parties find satisfactory and are committed to implementing.  Collaboration is based on going beyond competitive positions to establish common needs and interests.  Collaboration recognizes that constructive resolution is not about your way or my way.  It is about a better way.

Project managers who model collaborative behavior communicate openly and refuse to see limitations that prevent individual needs from getting met.  Creativity and innovation flourish because these leaders help colleagues search for the underlying common goals that demonstrate how everyone is an important contributor and critical to final solutions.  Collaborative project managers also are adept at redefining problems in ways that compel employees to participate.  They tap into the individual motivators that make each employee feel understood and critical for success.  A collaborative focus establishes an atmosphere of trust and understanding because it considers both objective, business interests as well as the often overlooked emotional needs required for buy-in and commitment.

Mediating Conflict

Project leaders often are asked or compelled to intervene and facilitate the conflict resolution process.  As mediators, their role should not be to help the parties agree.  Instead, their objective is to enhance understanding and develop constructive conflict resolution skills within the team or across functional areas.

Mediation is not solving the problems presented by project colleagues because ultimately, that only creates additional dependence upon their leadership and a fear of risk taking.  Instead, mediation is the process of getting the competing factions on the same side of the table, focused on a common set of objectives and on creating their own solutions.  Mediators facilitate confrontation and help both parties listen to one another.

Project managers that model the principles of constructive conflict may apply different approaches that tap into the unique needs of their employees and organization.  However, they should incorporate a common set of objectives founded on the principles required to promote collaborative resolution.  These requirements will prevent destructive disputes, guide the collaborative process, and let creativity and innovation flourish.

By accepting and encouraging conflict, project managers will establish an environment prepared to navigate the challenges of change.  When listening is used as the means of guiding conflict from positional disagreement to an exchange of thoughts and ideas, organization leaders will create the right balance and intensity required to maintain energetic participation and enhance decision making.  As team members adopt a collaborative focus, they will learn to seek solutions that will satisfy the interests they represent while simultaneously satisfying the interest of others, and conflict will become a chance to learn, innovate, and grow.

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