Good Conflict and Bad Conflict

I am seeing more and more about conflict in the mainstream business press, which is a good thing. Specifically, a popular dichotomy is emerging: there is good conflict and bad conflict. The “good” conflict is typically very rational. Some call it “task” conflict and it is the kind of conflict that is manifested in a “healthy debate.” Bad conflict, on the other hand, is personal, emotional, and nasty.

An article in Sloan Management Review about performance of top management teams describes it this way:

Some disagreements, usually those centered on how best to approach a particular task, are beneficial to decision making and to the team itself because they surface flawed assumptions, expose concealed gaps in information and force debate of alternate approaches… Other disagreements, especially those that are emotional or personal in nature, are detrimental because they produce resentment, interrupt working relationships and restrict the flow of information, resulting in the isolation of people and the rejection of alternative ideas.

I’m not convinced.

I think the distinction between the types of conflict is useful, but I don’t think it’s fair to paint the good/bad picture on them. The bad conflict being cited here exists in cases of emotional or personal conflict that is handled poorly, but that does not make those disagreements bad by definition.

All conflict is personal. It’s just a question of managing the personal elements as they arise. When someone disagrees with you rationally, it may still push some emotional buttons, depending on who is disagreeing and in what context. Managing that “personal” conflict conversation is just as important as managing the more rational disagreements. In fact, from a senior team perspective, I think it’s critical.

4 Comments

  1. 25.04.2007 at 1:28 pm

    Thanks Jamie — I agree that the increased attention to this topic is a good thing. Again, I think Goran Ekvall’s distinction between “debate” and “conflict” may help think through this … in his research (and subsequent studies too), debate is positively correlated with a creative climate … the presence of conflict is negatively correlated. Which just goes to reinforce (and perhaps even suggests strengthening) your assertion that “Managing that “personal” conflict conversation is just as important as managing the more rational disagreements.”

  2. 25.04.2007 at 5:04 pm

    Yes, I remember looking at the link the last time you mentioned it (thanks for your comments, by the way). I can’t find it now, but I think the Evkall point is roughly the same as the Sloan article, and I still think there is an important but subtle flaw in the argument. Maybe flaw is the wrong word. But the way people put debate in the good category and conflict in the bad category is just reinforcing our basic fear of emotionally based conflict. I think it is important that we work to debunk that fear. It’s not the conflict we should fear, but the historical patterns of very poor responses to emotional conflict that we should fear (and change). Saying debate is good and conflict is bad makes me want to transform the conflict into debate, and I’m not sure that’s possible, or desirable, in fact.

  3. 28.04.2007 at 9:34 pm

    Thanks Jamie – I’m not sure if you can “transform conflict into debate”. To me, these may be two separate continuums … with debate representing the degree of openness to discuss alternate viewpoints, and conflict representing the degree to which you personally tolerate (or don’t tolerate) someone on a personal level.
    It seems to me that lack of openness to debate leads to a loss of innovation because people don’t bring alternate viewpoints to the table. Personal conflict, on the other hand, interferes with collaboration very much as outlined in the example you discuss at https://www.jamienotter.com/getmejamienotter/2007/04/forced_collabor.html.
    Personal conflict seems particularly insidious, in that it would seem to lessen the likelihood of working together, including healthy debate.
    As in the example you write about above, I think a lower level part of the answer lies in letting people that regardless whether they like one another, they do need to learn to work well together, including discussing issues on which they might disagree. A higher level part of the solution might be working to help people recognize and appreciate others who are different than them, and how, as you suggest, to better deal emotional conflict. Or, as I think happens much more often in the real world, one of the players in the scenario simply leaves (voluntarily if they’re lucky).

  4. John
    02.08.2007 at 1:49 pm

    I think that Jamie is actually making two separate points here – one that resonates with me and one that doesn’t.
    The point that resonates is that all conflict is personal. I think it’s a mistake for managers to live in a Pollyanna world where they think, “This is rational debate, so it’s all good.” Like Jamie said, if someone gives an opinion that my idea is a bad idea – no matter how tactfully or rationally they put it – there’s no way that I’m not going to take it personally. If I’m mature about it, I won’t make a federal case out of it, but the personal conflict is still there. So effective managers need to deal with personal conflict issues even in a rational debate world.
    The point that doesn’t resonate with me is that personal conflict is not inherently bad, they are only bad if handled poorly. I think personal conflict is inherently bad the way that cancer is inherently bad. They both become much worse when handled poorly or ignored, and in many cases they can be handled so that they become manageable and we can live with them. But the organization, like the organism, would certainly function better without it, and I don’t see any up side to it the way that rational debate has an up side of creating a more vibrant, creative and smarter organization.