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When Conflict Is Good (And When It's Not)

This Advisor column was originally published in January 2010.

Nancy and Bonita are always at loggerheads in meetings. Casper and Dylan are always complaining (to you) about each other. Miguel and Keisha can hardly bear to be in the same room together.

If I asked you whether you have too much or too little conflict in your work life, what you’re likely to say—after scoffing at the question—is that you have too much.

What you have too much of is emotional and personal conflict, such as shouting, backstabbing, put-downs, cold shoulders, and personality conflicts. This kind of conflict is profoundly unproductive and destructive. It hurts business results, poisons the work atmosphere, and destroys trust and goodwill. Everyone would be better off with less emotional conflict at work.

There’s another kind of conflict, though, that you may not have enough of. That’s cognitive conflict. Cognitive conflict involves disagreement over ideas, decisions or actions. It’s the intellectual (as opposed to emotional) form of conflict.

Cognitive conflict is the good conflict because it tests ideas and approaches, forces people to examine their data and assumptions, and ensures they’re clear in their thinking. Cognitive conflict is about refining and tightening ideas in order to come to the best decision possible.

When there’s not enough cognitive conflict, half-baked ideas get implemented and ill-advised decisions get made. This hurts the organization, too, because it results in lower performance, wasted time and resources, frustration, anger, and disappointment.

Is it possible to have cognitive conflict without it devolving into emotional conflict? The short answer is “Yes.” But, it takes constant, focused effort to separate the personal and emotional from the ideas and decisions. I’ve seen many groups successfully reduce emotional conflict while increasing cognitive conflict.

The first step is to take a look at how people talk to each other. Is the conversation mostly about people pushing out their ideas (advocacy), or are they truly interested in exploring ideas and the thinking behind them (inquiry). Or, worse, are they hardly talking at all?

Advocacy often leads to emotional conflict because advocates become passionate about their ideas, start to focus on winning, stop critically evaluating their idea, and sometimes even withhold or distort information to support their cause. If all you see in your meetings is advocacy, then you’re likely to end up with a lot of emotional conflict to contend with.

Inquiry, on the other hand, is about exploring multiple options, not just one. It fosters a candid exchange of ideas. Assumptions and gaps in reasoning are exposed and examined. In inquiry, you ask genuine questions, which is a sign of respect. You’re sincerely interested in what they’re thinking. Disciplined inquiry is much more likely to result in a well-tested, workable solution than unbridled advocacy.

Healthy discussion (or “dialogue”) involves a lot of inquiry with a sprinkling of advocacy. It’s characterized by a fair amount of cognitive conflict and produces better ideas and decisions. Keep emotional conflict in check; when it emerges, deal with with openly and quickly, so that the group as a whole can get back to work.

There are many ways of increasing inquiry and cognitive conflict. Here are few tips to try on your own team:

  1. Talk with the team about the kind of conversations you want to have in meetings (and between them). Agree on a short list of ground rules that would be needed to realize the vision.
  2. If a conversation gets hot, intervene directly by paraphrasing the speaker’s comments, checking with the speaker for accuracy, and then asking the other combatant to respond. Paraphrase his/her comments, too, if necessary.
  3. Step out of the conversation and observe how it’s going. Share your observations with the group and ask for their ideas for changing the tone. Are they following the ground rules? Need to add a new one?
  4. If people too readily agree with each other, appoint a “devil’s advocate” to analyze the idea. Rotate this role so that everyone gets experience challenging the group and living to tell about it.
  5. Identify the criteria you want a solution to address (e.g., budget neutral or politically palatable) and then do 10 minutes of unbridled, unedited brainstorming of potential solutions. Only after everyone’s ideas are up on the whiteboard do you allow evaluation, editing and combining of ideas.
  6. Take five minutes at the end of each meeting to evaluate it. What worked well? Would people like to change?

At the end of the day, make “how we talk” a legitimate topic of conversation on your team. Taking a little time here and there to tune-up your meetings will pay big dividends.

Conflict is unavoidable. But it need not be destructive, emotional conflict. Done well, cognitive conflict leads to better ideas, livelier meetings, greater understanding, better work relationships, sound decisions and improved business outcomes.

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About Eric Svaren