Productive conflict

Published December 2, 2022
The writer has a doctorate from the University of Oxford and is graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
The writer has a doctorate from the University of Oxford and is graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

IMAGINE sitting down with colleagues to discuss an important work matter. Key decisions need to be made and you happen to have a few good ideas that may enrich the discussion. But you are relatively junior in an organisation where seniority carries significant weight, sometimes at the cost of the quality of the discussion. Challenging a senior could potentially have negative career consequences, especially if your manager takes any critique personally.

In this scenario, you keep your thoughts to yourself because of the huge potential downside to speaking up. You nod along with everything your seniors say, even though you may vehemently disagree inside. The room becomes an echo chamber where everyone agrees with each other. The only problem is that a few months down the line, your project runs into significant challenges — crucially, you foresaw these problems during the meeting but never mentioned them for fear of reprisal.

This scenario may be relatable for those working for organisations where speaking up is disincentivised.

It is important to highlight that there is a plethora of evidence in organisational psychology showing that ‘productive conflict’ is important for better performance. Organisat­ional psychologist Adam Grant sheds light on this phenomenon which is summed up in his quote: “Great minds don’t think alike. They challenge each other to think differently.” You simply cannot have a situation like the scenario above where everyone agrees with each other most of the time, and still expects better organisational performance.

A safe space is needed for junior staff to speak up.

Hence, it is important for managers to create a safe space for junior staff to speak up. Team members need to know that challenging the views of senior staff won’t have negative career consequences, and instead, would be appreciated. Managers should also keep sight of who speaks more versus less because speaking more or less may be a function of privilege or the lack thereof. Encouraging team members to share their views via whatever medium they are comfortable with is equally important.

Now imagine a different scenario where speaking up is common. The problem here is that most critique is communicated in an aggressive, non-constructive manner by everyone. Like the first scenario, you are a junior staffer, again attending a meeting where key decisions need to be made. Taking a cue from others in the organisation, you bring up your thoughts in a non-constructive, aggressive manner. Resultantly, the discussion goes nowhere and additionally sours the working relationship within the team. As a result, the project suffers from immense delays.

This scenario (perhaps less common) may be relatable to people working in organisational cultures that incentivise challenging each other’s views.

Here, it is important to distinguish between what Adam Grant refers to as ‘task conflict’ and ‘relationship conflict’. While the former is disagreeing about a problem, the latter represents differences in values and personalities. The presence of productive ‘task conflict’ is crucial for better organisational performance. There is an absolute lack of that in our first scenario which leads to poor performance.

At the same time, ‘task conflict’ can spill over into ‘relationship conflict’ which could potentially break down the working relationship. This is exactly what happens in our second scenario where well-intended critique is communicated in non-constructive terms and is hence taken personally. This eventually breaks down the working relationship — a case where ‘task conflict’ becomes a ‘relationship conflict’.

So how do we promote an organisational culture where there is adequate amount of productive ‘task conflict’ without it spilling over into ‘relationship conflict’? This, of course, is hard to achieve because we as human beings are naturally inclined to take critique personally. But there are a few things that could help.

First, critique should be communicated in a constructive manner, rather than in the aggressive manner in our scenario. The recipient of the feedback would be much more open to incorporating it if the same feedback is couched in a humble and constructive manner. Second, we all need to stop equating the critique of our ideas with a critique of ourselves. I know that I have taken well-meaning critique of my work in the past personally. But I also know that being open to constructive feedback has always been rewarding. This is exactly why it is important to constantly work on not taking constructive feedback personally.

Let’s all aim to promote healthy and open work cultures with productive ‘task conflict’. As it may sound daunting to change organisational culture, we could simply start with our respective teams. That alone can be a significant step towards putting our respective organisational cultures on the right track.

The writer has a doctorate from the University of Oxford and is graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

Twitter: @KhudadadChattha

Published in Dawn, December 2nd, 2022

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