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.