Conflict has a big impact on a team’s level of creativity. You may be surprised to learn that teams need conflict in order to be creative. In this episode, learn what the research has revealed about the best types of conflict and the best approaches of conflict for creativity. You’ll also learn about creative abrasion and 4 tips on how to achieve the optimal level of conflict with your teams.
What You’ll Learn
- Two types of conflict – one that is helpful for teams and one that is harmful
- Five approaches to conflict and the three that increase creativity
- The definition and importance of creative abrasion
- Four simple things you can do to get the optimal level of conflict in your team
- Groupthink article by Jonah Lehrer – this is the article I talked about that I shared with the team
- Jehn, K. (1995). A multi method examination of the benefits and detriments of intragroup conflict. Administrative Science Quarterly, 40, 256-282.
- Badke-Schaub, P., Goldschmidt, G., & Meijer, M. (2010). How does cognitive conflict in design teams support the development of creative ideas? Creativity and Innovation Management, 19(2), 119-133.
- Episode 5: Ideation
- Episode 17: Seven Norms of Collaboration
The Weekly Challenge
Try one of the four techniques to increase creativity in your team. What happens? Share in the comment section or send me an email and let me know how it goes.
Feel like reading instead of listening? Download the free PDF Transcript or read it below. Enjoy!
Transcript for Episode #023: How Conflict Impacts Team Creativity
Amy Climer: Welcome to Episode # 23 of The Deliberate Creative Podcast. Today, I want to talk about how conflict within teams impacts creativity. I’m going to share with you what the research says about conflict within teams and we are going to talk about something called creative abrasion. Then we are going to talk about how you can help your team achieve the optimum level of conflict. I think you might be surprise with some of the results too, especially from the research. But before we dive into that I want to share with you a review on iTunes for The Deliberate Creative podcasts. This is from LBray2810. “I really enjoyed Amy’s work with our upper and middle management groups at my company. Her training has been impactful. These podcasts are a great booster shot for me and are keeping me engaged in my efforts to improve. I listen during my hour long commute and find myself immersed in Amy’s presentations. Production is impressive, information is easy to understand, and she challenges me to be better.” Thank you LBray that is so awesome. I love hearing that. I love that you are using the podcasts to build on some of the work that we already did within your team. That is super cool. Thanks for sharing on iTunes. If you haven’t written a review on The Deliberate Creative Podcasts, head on over to iTunes. I love them, I love reading them. It helps other people figure out if this is the right podcasts for them to listen to. So go over to iTunes and write a review, if you don’t mind.
So let’s talk about conflict within teams. There are two types of conflict that I want to explore. The first is called tasks conflict and the second is relationship conflict. Let me explain each. Task conflict is disagreements amongst team members about the content of the tasks being performed. So this might include differences in viewpoint, ideas, or opinions, but it’s about what we are doing, how we are doing it, maybe even why we are doing it. But it’s really about the work that the team is doing and that’s task conflict.
The second type of conflict is called relationship conflict. These are those interpersonal incompatibilities within team members. These typically include tension, animosity, maybe some annoyance amongst team members within a group. Relationship conflict is not very helpful. Tasks conflict actually can be very helpful. We are going to explore that further. By the way, both these definitions are from a research paper by Jehn from 1995. I’ll put the link on the shownotes. I’m going to mention a number of resources throughout this episode You can get all of those on the shownotes which is climerconsulting.com/023. So head over there if you wanted to see any of the resources that I mention.
Two Types of Conflict [3:28]
Okay let’s look at these two types of conflict. Relationship conflict is not helpful at all. It’s really not helpful in any team whether they are trying to be creative or otherwise. Relationship conflict is that conflict where you know it’s like, “I just don’t like this person.” It’s like “Oh, here we go again. So and so is talking. They always say the same thing. They always ramble on too long” You know whatever the reason is for that relationship conflict, it’s not helpful. Part of that is you are trying to figure out how do I get past that or how do I develop positive relationships with the people I worked with. That’s hopefully everybody’s focus. But the other kind of conflict, task conflict, which is sometimes called cognitive conflict, that is actually helpful to a certain degree if the team is trying to be creative. If a team has no task conflict or very low level of task conflict, they will also going to have a low level of innovation. That low level of task conflict is often called groupthink. Groupthink is this concept where a team or group strives for harmony above everything else. So getting along and agreeing on everything is more important than successfully reaching their goals, more important than being creative, It’s even more important than getting to the best decision. There have been numerous instances historically where teams have made really bad decisions because of groupthink, because they weren’t willing to disagree with each other. An example of groupthink is the US Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Cuban missile crisis. This happened in the 1960’s. In the team that was making that decision, people didn’t speak up ahead of time and say “I don’t think this a good decision.” We ended up invading Cuba, which was a very bad decision and people died because of it. This is a really extreme example where groupthink caused people to die. Most of us aren’t dealing with issues of that level, but there was this fear of speaking up with the Cuban missile crisis. Afterwards when the team were studied, the people said “Yeah, I didn’t agree with them, but I didn’t speak up”. That’s quite something to have on you’re conscious, I suppose. That’s what happens when there is not enough conflict. There is not an environment where some level of conflict is okay. Poor decisions might be made even when some members of the team don’t agree with them. Hopefully a team is healthy enough to avoid that low level of conflict that groupthink.
Now on the complete other end of the spectrum if a team is constantly in conflict and they are disagreeing about everything all the time, well, they are not going to get any decisions made and nothing is going to get done. So that’s not helpful either. But what is helpful for innovation and creativity is a happy medium. So you want to have a moderate level of task conflict. For instance, when a bunch of ideas are thrown out we can debate and disagree, we can discuss which of these ideas might the best for our team to move forward with. When you want to hear different opinions and see different perspectives, that’s going to ultimately help the team come up with a better decision in the end. I want you to imagine, for those of you who like visuals and this is an audio podcast, I want to describe a visual to you. Hopefully this will help you see this ideal level of conflict. Imagine an x-y axis graph and on the y-axis is innovation. So high level of innovation is at the top, low level of innovation is at the bottom. On the x-axis going horizontal, the far left is zero level of conflict and on the far right is the high level of task conflict. We’re talking about task conflict here. Innovation on the y-axis, conflict on the x-axis. I want you to imagine the line would be an upside down U like an inverse U-curve. So low level of conflict, low level of innovation. Medium level of conflict, high level of innovation. High level of conflict, low level of innovation. So that happy medium of cognitive or task conflict is what we are going for.
With relationship conflict what you will see is basically like a straight line going from high on the left and low on the right. High level of innovation would be low level of relationship conflict. High level of relationship conflict is going to mean low level of innovation. If that helps you and you are visual, awesome. If not, just ignore what I’ve just said. However, what I will do is I will put this image in the transcript. Every episode I also provide a transcript for that episode. You can download it at the show notes. I’ll put that image right in the transcripts so you can see it. So check that out if you are interested. Okay, so those are the two types of conflict.
Five Approaches to Conflict [9:00]
There are five approaches to conflict. This is based on some research by Thomas-Kilmann 1974 and they are the seminal researchers for identifying these five approaches to conflict. So there are five types: Avoiding, Accommodating, Compromising, Competing and Collaborating. So let’s talk about those five and what they look like and how they might show up in a team. There is another graph for this and I will put this in the transcript as well. Let me explain the graph to you. On the x horizontal axis is level of cooperativeness and on the y-axis going up and down is level of assertiveness.
So the first type I will talk about is avoiding. This is where you are avoiding conflict. This is non-assertive, non-cooperative. Basically you are not engaging at all. That’s avoiding conflict. Actually could be helpful in situations where confronting the conflict might be more damaging than not doing anything. Avoiding is also helpful when there are other issues besides getting to the best solutions that are more urgent. Perhaps there are situations where group harmony is more important than getting to the best solution. In that case avoiding the conflict will make a lot of sense. So that’s avoiding.
The second approach is called Accommodating. This is where it’s highly cooperative but non-assertive. I think of this as groupthink where there is “I have a very low concern for my own needs but I have a high concern for everybody else. You are basically having this harmony and peace. It can really support a positive climate and useful when keeping that harmony is a high priority. I think of one situation where this sometimes works although sometimes it backfires, that is when there are a group of people deciding where to go out to dinner. I don’t know about you, but usually when I’m going out with a group of people, to me what’s most important is hanging out with all those people. Which restaurant to choose is not my top priority. I know other friends that the restaurant they want to go to is really important to them so they’ll be more assertive about that. That is actually competing so that the third style.
Competing is where you are highly assertive and non-cooperative and you are trying to get your point across. Your own concern is set above the concerns of everybody else. Usually it is in order to attain or keep a higher position, a sense of power. This is not the most helpful or effective approach. Typically what happens with competing is it provokes a win-lose situation. The style that are more cooperative can produce more of a win-win situation. So that’s competing.
The next one I’ll talk about is compromising and this is smack in the middle of the graph, where it is midway between the assertiveness and halfway between cooperativeness. The objective of this style is to find a solution that is suitable and mutually acceptable and that partially satisfies everybody. This could be appropriate in situations where there is a different goals and all those goals are equally important to everybody concerned, but the solutions still needs to be reached. Compromising actually may not be the most helpful with creativity. Let’s imagine you have this list of creative ideas and these two ideas are really the top two ideas in a team. The team decides “Well, maybe what we should do instead of selecting one or the other is we should blend this ideas and try to do a merge of both of them.” Though sometimes that could work really well and could produce a better idea. But sometimes what happens is it actually dilutes the power of either idea and so you end up with something mediocre. So that’s the challenge with comprising. You just have to pay attention when it is appropriate and when it’s not. Sometimes it’s not helpful for creativity.
Finally there is collaborating. Collaborating is highly assertive and highly cooperative. This is where everybody is trying to work together with everyone else in the group to find the solution that meets everyone’s needs and that really meets all the goals present.
This is more associated with problem solving situations. Collaborating style is most effective probably with creativity. I think of a marketing team and they are coming together to figure out a new marketing campaign for a client. There are going to be a lot of ideas thrown out and there is going to be a lot of collaborating. Hopefully people are fairly assertive and that they are not holding back. But at the same time they are not so assertive that they are not willing to be cooperative. That’s the difference between the assertiveness with collaborating and competing. It’s that if you are highly assertive and highly cooperative, that might look different than if you are highly assertive and you’re not cooperative and you’re thinking: “This is the only thing I’m willing to do it”. That’s usually not so helpful. So that’s an overview of five different approaches to conflict. But as far as innovation and creativity is concerned collaborating can be helpful, but also certain compromising and competing. It depends on the situation. Collaborating, the challenge with it is that sometimes teams can spend too much time discussing and working out ideas. That can actually decrease, especially if there is time constraint, that might decrease their innovation. There is an interesting study done that I’ll put in the shownotes about cognitive conflict. It’s about a group of researchers that looked at the different approaches to conflict and how they help teams. I think the challenge with the study is that it was pretty fast and that they put these team together and they didn’t work together very long. I want to say like an hour or so and they have them looking at different designs of camping tents. They rated their results and looked at what was their conflict style. They found that sometimes the competing and compromising style was very helpful for creativity and innovation. I think the best for the group to have is to have a combination and that there are times where competing, compromising, and collaborating are all valuable. Mixing those can really be impactful for a team. That’ll be my recommendation. For the most part the non-assertive approach, the avoiding and the accommodating are less helpful than the competing, compromising and collaborating. So there are the five approaches.
Creative Abrasion [16:30]
Third thing I wanted to share with you is this concept called creative abrasion. I love this term. It was coined by Jerry Hirshberg and he worked for Nissan Design International. Back in the 80s and 90s Nissan was a pretty new car company at least in the US. They hired Jerry Hirshberg an American to work with both the Japanese side and the US side to bring all these different people together to create a higher level of innovation. They wanted to bring this intuition of western designer with the technological agility of Japan. Through his time there he recognized the value of collaboration conflict.
Let me tell you the definition of creative abrasion: “Creative abrasion is a process in which potential solutions are created, explored, and modified through debate and discourse. It can and often does involve heartfelt disagreement, but not always. Abrasion in essence means simply that ideas and options compete in order for the best ideas to emerge” (Hill, et al., 2014, p. 138). This is basically what I was talking about a minute ago, as far as looking at that collaborating having some level of conflict, but I love the term creative abrasion because I think sometimes we have this inaccurate image of conflict. We think of conflict as this heated debate, team members are arguing with each other, people are standing up, and there are hands waving everywhere, it’s very excited and exaggerated and it could be angry. Basically what it is saying it’s just about getting passionate and being comfortable with disagreeing, but you don’t have to disagree just for disagreement sake. It’s just this idea or this concept of ideas and options are merging together and we are working to figure out the best ones. So Jerry Hirshberg coined the term and then more recently in 2014 a researcher Lynda Hill, she had team working together, they look at how this showed up in practice in teams. What she found and this is really important. basically what I was mentioning earlier were you were at moderate level of cognitive or task conflict, but a low level of relationship conflict. Creative abrasion is another term for that. I like that term. Im curious what you think. Let me know. Shoot me an email or make a comment on the show notes. What do you think of creative abrasion?
Action Steps to Increase Collaboration and Creativity [19:12]
So we we’ve been talking some more theoretically here. Now let’s look at how do we put this into action. What can you do with your team or your organization to help them reach this optimum level of conflict? I want to share a story of what I did that actually worked really well. It was one of those things that I wasn’t sure if it was going to work, but it surprised me. Just a few years ago I was working with a team at a university and it was all university staff. I was hired to come in to facilitate that team and we were working together for about three or four months, I guess basically a semester. Our job was to design a new component of the university’s human resource system. To design this we made some recommendations that the university could decide if they were going to implement or not. Well we had been working together for about eight weeks and we had met at least once a week, but sometimes twice a week, so we knew each other fairly well at this point. We kind of got in this routine, and people showed up on meetings and they knew what to expect and we were comfortable with each other. I would say for the most part, we were enjoying ourselves and enjoying working together. But I remember just feeling like: “Ah, we just weren’t quite there, the discussions and conversations we were having just weren’t quite robust enough. I knew about this conflict concept and that we needed to have some more conflict. I was trying to think how can I help this team to get to that level. So I decided to share with them an article that had come up that year by Jonah Lehrer and it was written in The New Yorker. I‘ll put in the shownotes for you.
Teach Your Team About the Value of Conflict [12:00]
I sent everybody the article over email and asked them if they could read it before the next meeting and we are going to talk about it. I only send them a one or two page excerpt from the article because it was somewhat long and I didn’t want them to have to read the whole thing. So we get to the next meeting and as people are filtering in, a few people are like “Amy, I’m so mad at you for sending us that article.” I was thinking “What?” I didn’t think it was that big of a deal. I asked, ”Why?” They said because you sent us a short excerpt, but it was so good we ended up reading the whole article and we didn’t have time for that. So that was pretty funny. Basically they loved it, but more importantly was the conversation we had from that article. The article talked about this idea of groupthink and the negative aspects of that. We talked about the impact of having some level of conflict with the team. We talked about that and what was so cool is what happened afterwards. After that, people were more certain with their opinion, they were sharing with each other and at the same time they had this very cooperative approach. We got so much work done and at much higher level than I think we would have before. People did not hold back, yet also weren’t so adamant about their opinion. Once in awhile someone would say, “You know I just really think this is the most important, this is the best way to do something.” Sometimes they were right so the team would go that way, but only after talking through it and everyone sharing their perspectives. It worked really well. So if you have a team and you are interested in increasing the level of conflict in a team, you might want to explain to them this concept and why you are going to try increase the level conflict. Otherwise, if they don’t understand it could backfire, it could be ugly. You may choose to do that with an article, you can play this podcast episode for them, or you could just explain it to them. However you might want to do it, I do think talking with the team about these concepts can help the team understand “Oh, okay I really do need to share my thoughts and not hold back.” So that’s the first thing you could do.
Summarize Ideas in Your Meetings [23:14]
The second thing is more in the meeting, in the moment, you can summarize ideas that are coming out. Let say there are three people that have shared some ideas or three ideas that haven’t been explored first for a specific challenge you have. Let’s say one of them is Jamie’s idea and she has an idea for something in particular.
The second idea is from Chad and the third idea is from Jared. So there are three people who are sharing this ideas and the team is talking about them. It’s really helpful at some point if someone, you may be the first person to summarize those ideas. “Okay, so looks like we have three ideas on the table, we have idea A, idea B, and idea C. What’s not helpful, is to say we have Jamie’s idea, Chad’s idea, and Jared’s idea because actually what happens is when you attribute that idea to that person, the team doesn’t feel like there is a collective ownership of it and so it makes it harder to adjust and mold it. I think there is an instance where we get into some relationship conflict where if I like Jamie the best I’m going to vote for her idea. Which is of course not helpful for achieving higher level of creativity. The second thing you can do there is summarizing the ideas particularly without naming people and not giving the ideas to a person, but having the team own the ideas.
Ask Questions and Mine for Conflict [24:40]
The third thing is ask questions, be curious. Try to mine conflict within the group and I don’t mean conflict for conflict sake, but let’s say you are having a conversation about something and you notice that one particular person has not spoken that much. You might say, “Hey Jennifer, I haven’t heard you say anything lately. What are you thinking about this?” In a very inviting, invitational way, ask for that person’s input. It may be that they are holding back because they disagree, but they didn’t want to cause a riffle. Then when you bring something up then they are willing to share. Mining for conflict can be very helpful.
Use Non-Verbal Techniques for Idea Sharing [25:28]
The fourth thing I would recommend is setting up some non verbal techniques for people to share their perspectives and ideas. Not everyone is really good at verbally explaining their perspectives. I would suggest going back to Episode #5 where I explained ideation techniques for the Creative Problem Solving process. In that episode, I talked about a number of different techniques you can use, many of them non verbal, to help people share perspectives and ideas. Actually with that episode is a free workbook that you can download to help you understand the activities even better. For instance, one of them that has come to mind is use Post-It Notes. I’m a huge fan of Post-It Notes I can easily go through 500 Post-It Notes in a day long session. Get some Post-It Notes and have everybody write down their perspectives on a particular idea on a Post-It Notes. Put that up on a wall and look to see where things are. See if there is a spectrum or things clumped up. Sometimes people have more similar ideas than you can realize or similar perspectives and getting that in writing can help the group see “Oh, actually we all kind of agree on this. Cool. Okay.” “Wow we have like this two different perspectives, let’s explore those more”. So using something like Post-It Notes can be very helpful.
So those are four things you can do. Sharing the concept with the team, increasing conflict sharing that with the team, summarizing the ideas if you need to within the group, just asking questions, mining for conflicts within the group and then setting up some non verbal techniques for people to share their perspectives.
Okay we are coming to a close here. We have talked about a lot today all related to how conflict impacts team creativity. So we first looked at two types of conflict: task conflict and relationship conflict. We looked at five different approaches to conflict. We talked about creative abrasion and then we looked at a few things that you can do to increase the conflict within teams. You know one thing I didn’t mention is what if you have too much conflict? So if you have too much conflict with your teams and you are not getting done, I would recommend listening to episode #17 which is about the Seven Norms of Collaboration. That episode specifically gives some techniques that can help the team become more collaborative together. Highly recommended the episode, go check that out and I’ll talk through some ways that can perhaps decrease conflict within the team.
Your weekly challenge for the week is to think about one of those four things that I mentioned that you can do and pick one of them to do this week. Like I said, I’ll put the resource on the show notes. I’ll put the articles. I’ve actually mentioned a lot of research, yet I haven’t mentioned it all by name. I’ll put all the links in the show notes. If you want to download any of those you can. I’d love to hear from you, send me an email or go to the show notes and share your thoughts, write a comment in there. You know one of the things you should know when you write a comment, is you have to insert your email address. That doesn’t actually show up anywhere. I think I can see it, but I don’t do anything with it. I don’t believe it shows up on the website. If you are nervous about that, don’t worry about it. I won’t share your email with anyone, I promise that. I just think that’s horrible. I hate when people do that. If you are at all hesitant of sharing a comment, rest assure I will protect your privacy and you could put any name in there you want. But anyway, I love seeing comments. Head on over to shownotes at climerconsulting.com/023. If you haven’t written a review yet on iTunes I would love you to go and do that. It just takes a few minutes. If you need detailed directions on how to do that, you can go to climerconsulting.com/review. You can also leave a review on Stitcher. I don’t have any reviews on Stitcher, yet because most of you uses iTunes so if you are an Android user you can head over there. That’ll be pretty awesome. I hope this was helpful I’m excited for you to work with your team and help them get to that optimal level of conflict. If you have any questions shoot me an email. You can go to my website and email me from there. Have a wonderful week. I’ll see you next time.
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