How can conflict increase creativity among teams? Teams are tasked with solving a problem (or problems), and creativity can provide the team with more options, and more viable options can solve problems. So, what is the relationship between creativity and conflict? Research literature discusses the impact that conflict has and whether conflict is positive or negative. So, the real question isn’t “is there a relationship?” But rather, “what is the relationship?”
When thinking about the theme of conflict and creativity in a team setting, I was reminded of famous cases where these two factors were in play. Team conflict brings to mind President Abraham Lincoln. In her popular book Team of Rivals, American historian Doris Kearns Goodwin explains how Lincoln’s Cabinet was a diverse group of powerful leaders who Lincoln managed in ways that produced great outcomes even while dealing with disparate agendas that were often at odds with Lincoln and each other.
Here is what Goodwin says about Lincoln: This, then, is a story of Lincoln’s political genius . . . to repair injured feelings . . . to assume responsibility for the failures of subordinates; to share credit with ease; and to learn from mistakes. He possessed an acute understanding of the sources of power . . .and a masterful sense of timing. 1
How many of our colleagues in Christian schools see the opportunity that this kind of conflict presents?
Consequences of Non-conflict
In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni names the second dysfunction of a team as fear of conflict: “Unfortunately, conflict is considered taboo in many situations, especially at work”. Lencioni suggests owning up to this fear: “The first step [in overcoming this dysfunction] is acknowledging that conflict is productive, and that many teams have a tendency to avoid it. As long as some team members believe that conflict is unnecessary, there is little chance it will occur.”
Lencioni suggests having team members play a role of looking for or “mining” for conflict. He suggests that the conflicts are there; they are just buried and need to be brought out during the teamwork so that they don’t go unheard and arise later. 2
Not all conflict situations result in creativity. Conflict without the right people or context results in less creativity, not more. President John F. Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs invasion strategy is an example of what is often called group think–a case where a creative solution was not explored. There is evidence that cabinet members held grave reservations about the invasion but were afraid to voice “negative” opinions when solidarity was expected. Here, again, is a great reminder for Christian school leaders to manage conflict to accomplish creativity rather than minimize debate.
Types of Conflict
Sometimes teams experience task conflict, which is a disagreement about how best to execute a task. This is different from and has greater upside potential than personality or interpersonal conflicts. , the authors suggest that the challenge is to have the right amount of conflict to promote creativity while not too much to lead to dysfunction. 2
In Task conflict and team creativity: A question of how much and when, the authors write more about this delicate balance: “However, as . . . others have suggested, too much task conflict may lead to a reduced capacity to perceive, process, and evaluate information. Team members may be unable to incorporate multiple lines of thinking into a cohesive solution and may subsequently lose sight of the collective goal or become frustrated by the lack of progress.”
They “found that moderate levels of task conflict lead to the highest levels of team creativity.” So, conflict beyond a moderate level results in the group’s inability to find a solution. Instead, the conflicts actually distract from the task at hand and result in the group losing sight of the task. Clearly, this research has implications for school leaders–for their own leadership and decision making.
Conflict as a Prerequisite for Growth
Authors have conducted research on the types of employees who benefit most from conflict in order to achieve creative outcomes. Li, Yang, and Ma assessed employee Growth Need Strength (GNS). GNS is a measurement of an employee’s need to have a sense of personal growth in their work. They determined that employees with a high GNS thrive with conflict while those with low GNS do not. This Growth Need Strength of employees and their longing to develop at work is a powerful factor in understanding conflict benefits. GNS has a clear impact on task conflict creativity. 5 Much of these findings have very interesting implications for Christian education. It is often assumed that educators will not thrive with conflict. However, many educators seem to fit with the model of the high GNS employee. If that is the case, we have underestimated the value of conflict in educational settings to promote creativity.
What Leaders Need to Know
As with so many functions of an organization, leadership matters, and the same thing is true with managing conflict in teamwork. Again, research supports these guidelines for project managers:
- Positive conflict values and attitudes need to be built at the early stage of the project life cycle.
- Training in conflict awareness, communication skills and conflict resolution approaches for enhancing common understanding, improving interpersonal relationships and mitigating relationship conflict need to be developed over the project life cycle
- Building a trust-based team where team members share a supportive climate and have psychological safety in an open environment is a critical aspect of the role for project managers. 1
In summary, Chen noted that conflict early in the process among those who trust one another and are led by those trained in conflict resolution can result in positive results.
The research seems to suggest that in order for conflict to be productive, a few key elements are necessary. The team needs to be managed by a capable leader. Without this element, the conflict will not be addressed, and the team will not benefit from the disagreements. The conflict also needs to be based on ideas related to the task that the team is addressing. Otherwise, the conflict becomes personal and members of the team don’t feel safe disagreeing. Finally, the types of participants on the team will either make productive conflict more likely or hinder it. These factors should all be considered in the makeup and work of the team.
Thinking back to the example of Lincoln, it appears true that the right environment and the right leader can create a situation where creativity thrives in conflict and where the result is indeed beneficial.
1. Goodwin, Doris Kearns. (2005). Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster.
2. Lencioni, Patrick. (2002). The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Li, Y., Yang, B., & Ma, L. (2018). When is task conflict translated into employee creativity? The moderating role of growth need strength. Journal of Personnel Psychology, 17(1), 22–32.
3. Farh, J.-L., Lee, C., & Farh, C. I. C. (2010). Task conflict and team creativity: A question of how much and when. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(6), 1173–1180.
4. Chen, M.-H. (2006). Understanding the Benefits and Detriments of Conflict on Team Creativity Process. Creativity and Innovation Management, 15(1), 105–116.
5. Li, Y., Yang, B., & Ma, L. (2018). When is task conflict translated into employee creativity? The moderating role of growth need strength. Journal of Personnel Psychology, 17(1), 22–32. https://doi.org/10.1027/1866-5888/a000192
Paul T. Neal (paul.neal@cace.) is Sr. Vice President for Marketing and Enrollment at Cairn University and co-founder of Charter Oak Research where he serves as Principal and Chief Research Officer. Charter Oak Research is a marketing research and consulting firm focused on resourcing and supporting Christian schools and colleges, other Christian ministries and for profit organizations. Charter Oak brings marketing research to bear on the strategy and tactics of enrollment and advancement needs of clients to improve brand awareness, perception and sustainability. Paul has presented and been published on: the use of normative data in analysis, respondent motives, trends in education and online communities and respondent quality. Prior to founding Charter Oak Research, Paul was a Principal at Olson Research Group for 15 years as well as serving as the Associate Director of the Center for the Study of Federalism at Temple University responsible for qualitative research on political culture and U.S. Public Policy. Paul has served as an adjunct faculty member at several Philadelphia area universities. Paul is a graduate of Eastern (B.A.) and Villanova (M.A.) Universities and attended Temple University for further graduate study.