Last reviewed 5 March 2014

Successful organisations will go into decline unless they put systems in place that stimulate debate and, to an extent, stimulate conflict: creative conflict. Val Moore reports.

Where conflict is destructive, this needs to be managed, and is the subject of the article Managing destructive conflict.

If asked, management would say “yes” when asked if it welcomed new ideas. Research has shown that employees’ responses are rather different, with 83% believing they could do more for their organisations, and nearly half feeling undervalued. Providers will benefit from research conducted by anonymous surveys; the perceptions of top management may be very different from those of middle managers, and both of these may differ markedly from the opinions of practitioners, support staff and third parties, such as parents and support organisations.

There are recognised obstacles to creativity, namely:

  • entrenched leadership — where no one will challenge the godlike status of the top person

  • the culture of the organisation — “we’ve always done it this way”

  • a risk-averse culture

  • short-termism with excessive emphasis on the bottom line and/or on achieving short-term targets.

Generating constructive conflict

Constructive conflict can be encouraged by bringing in outsiders; people who:

  • are willing to ask awkward questions

  • challenge the status quo

  • are independent and impartial

  • have a wider/different background and possible different age group from management, and consequently provide a broader prospective.

These types of people are usually:

  • non-executive directors

  • management consultants

  • business advisors.

Another element of constructive conflict is diversity. Diversity is essentially about improving the performance of organisations by recruiting the best people and helping them achieve their optimum potential. This could be by the use of outside persons, as previously suggested, or by recruitment and/or the development of staff.

Diversity is more positive in its approach than equal opportunities, which emphasises prevention of unfair discrimination. It is also broader and more inclusive in its scope, embracing not just gender, ethnicity and disability, but also differences in:

  • social background

  • education

  • values

  • personalities

  • work and life experience.

A team needs balance

Meredith Belbin is famous for identifying the various roles people play in teams, eg the creative, imaginative, unorthodox approach of “the plant”, or the challenging, sometimes provocative, energies of “the shaper”. Teams lacking people who fulfil one or more of the identified roles may be prone to complacency and stagnation.

The introduction of new staff into an organisation provides an excellent opportunity to challenge existing ways of thinking and doing things. However, this opportunity is far too often wasted because of the tendency in many organisations to recruit clones of existing employees. The need to fit in with the existing composition of a team should also be questioned. The diversity brought about by the inclusion of a person with different characteristics from the rest of the group could be of great value.

New employees at induction ask the “why” questions and can bring a new perspective. Listen, consider and learn. Dismiss their thoughts at this stage and they will probably never make another, conforming to the organisation’s norm. Managers who surround themselves with “yes” people are obviously not going to see the positive benefits of conflict, and neither are bullying managers, whose tactics tend to result in, at best, compliance from staff that is accompanied by alienation.

Managing the more creative members of staff is no easy task. Almost by definition, such individuals are likely to be non-conformists. Consequently, the challenge is to find a balance between non-confirmity, and getting them to observe a minimum acceptable level of adherence to key objectives, values and standards of behaviour. It is, however, dangerous to give creative individuals more favourable treatment than other members of staff as this can easily cause resentment and the wrong kind of conflict.

Managers need to monitor the effect they are having on the motivation and creativity of their staff, and there is a strong case for using 360° feedback. At formal appraisals, or on a more frequent basis, staff are encouraged to provide feedback on how they feel they are being managed, in addition to having their own performance assessed by their manager.

Mentors

Mentors may be able either to resolve conflicts that are troubling their charges, or to stimulate positive conflict by jolting mentees out of blinkered thinking. Mentors have the advantages of being:

  • independent from the day-to-day environment in which their mentees operate

  • aware of wider organisational issues

  • more experienced in terms of both business and (perhaps) life in general.

However, it is important to ensure that mentors are not steeped in the organisation’s existing ways of doing things to the extent that they are unable to challenge orthodoxy or to see the value of radical ideas.

Secondments

These are a useful way of achieving the benefits of positive conflict. They:

  • expose employees to a different culture and way of working

  • result in secondees bringing back new ideas that challenge established attitudes and processes.

There is far wider scope for secondments than is often realised. They can be made:

  • between public and private sector and other organisations

  • to charities, thereby combining conflict management benefits with a contribution to any corporate social responsibility programme

  • to customers and suppliers

  • internally.

Other methods of generating creative ideas include brainstorming and mind mapping. Although suggestion schemes have been around for a long time, do not dismiss them, as they:

  • encourage employee participation

  • stimulate innovation and creativity

  • identify more efficient working methods and ways of improving customer service.

If suggestion schemes are to be effective, it is important to:

  • acknowledge all suggestions immediately

  • process suggestions promptly — the amount of time this takes will inevitably vary depending on the complexity both of the suggestion and of the evaluation process

  • give, where possible, responsibility for implementing suggestions to the people who made them

  • ensure that people are recognised and rewarded for their suggestions — some organisations give a small award, eg £5, just for making a valid suggestion, even if it is not found to be workable.

Used well, creative conflict will benefit all involved in the provision.

Further information

  • Ask Good Questions to Get Good Results

  • Brainstorming Made Easy

  • Explaining 360 Degree Feedback

  • Mentoring Colleagues

  • Mind Mapping

  • Team Building

  • Using Stress to Achieve Positive Change