Do you know how to have generative conflict?

Workplaces today tend to discourage conflict. They teach people “communication skills” for how to say a “soft no”, or how to reduce or avoid tension, or how to give bad news a “positive positioning”, or how to convince people that what is happening really is good for them – creating a need where one did not exist. It can sound a lot like marketing!  All of these skills are nice to have in your communication toolkit, but I would suggest that we run the risk of losing the ability to generate radically new ideas through conflict.

Radically new ideas rarely emerge from a pleasant, comfortable vibe. They tend to emerge in tension filled, difficult, sometimes crazy environments where people are pushed to their limits intellectually and emotionally at times. It is through conflict that we collectively create new solutions that no one has considered before, because it is often the impetuous declarative, the arrogant position, the loopiest idea, or the most dire circumstance that often moves a group to the generation of something beyond the thinking of any one individual.

People generally don’t want to live in conflict filled environments where they are continuously pushed beyond their limits, but I would suggest that in the work environment, there needs to be a safe and accepted place and way for conflict to happen. If we lose that competency, I fear we collectively run the risk of mediocrity in our solutions to tough problems and our ideation of new business solutions.

I’d suggest that the ability to have generative conflict is a skill we may need to teach in business communications today.  I see generative conflict as having a few distinct characteristics:

  1. It allows for passionate, loud, and politically incorrect discussion.
  2. It is contained to environments where everyone understands the goal of producing a radically new solution to an identified problem.
  3. It is not ‘the norm’, but it is an accepted problem solving approach where people know the language and style will be different from everyday communication.

Generative conflict is useful when it meets three specific conditions:

  1. The need for it emerges from a passionate disagreement about a fundamental and important and specific business decision – setting a new strategy, creating a new product, offering a new service, entering a new market, hiring or firing key personal, investing in research and development, etc.
  2. The power levels between the individuals involved is somewhat level, although not necessarily equal in terms of hierarchy.
  3. The conflict interaction stays on-topic and is not a personal or threatening attack.

Generative conflict does not mean a free-for-all where you can say unkind things, attack an individual, or exercise positional power in inappropriate ways. But it does mean that you can speak your mind – if you think someone is wrong, you can say “I think you are wrong” rather than having to come up with something like “when you say things like that it makes me wonder if perhaps you don’t have all the data, or I haven’t done a good enough job of explaining….”

It isn’t for everyone, and it isn’t for every environment or situation. But when we think about companies that have managed to break down barriers in technology and deliver amazingly innovative products to the market, nearly all of them have stories of rough and tumble conflict driving the innovation process. Maybe we should learn from that and work to integrate some of that approach into some of the ‘communication processes’ we are developing and teaching.


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