No innovation without conflict. Why conflicts are not a bad thing.

By Yasemin Tahris
Published 01.03.2022

Conflicts don't feel good. They are associated with negative expectations, anger, annoyance, disappointment, and frustration in general. But if you look at it more closely, conflicts don't have to mean just arguments and deadlocked positions; they contain a lot of potential for creativity, positive development and innovation.

What does conflict actually mean?

If you look at human behaviour, there is always a motive or a drive that is directed towards a goal. This goal is usually pursued unconsciously. For example, if you feel hungry, you will be satiated by eating and will have reached your goal.

Where people work together, conflicts inevitably arise. There comes a time when motives no longer fit together and there are different ideas about behaviour and procedures.

If conflicts are dealt with more productively, companies can benefit from this and increase the success of their innovation efforts.

This was the conclusion reached by Professor Wolfgang Scholl in a large-scale study on "Conflicts in Innovation Process" conducted over two and a half years at the Department of Organizational and Social Psychology at Humboldt University in Berlin.

The study on conflicts among researchers in nano- and genetic science - and technology focused on the question of how best to deal with them. With the help of questionnaires and the evaluable participation of 300 researchers, three typical conflict situations could be identified. Mutual cooperation, mutual power struggle, and mutual restraint and adapting reserve. The result, unsurprisingly, was that collaboration was found to be consistently more productive than a power struggle. Derived from this, this means fewer escalations, higher knowledge growth and ability to act, and greater project progress. It should be emphasized from the results that the processes of collaboration in science and business are similar in many respects.

New perspectives emerge for Team efficiency in intra-group conflicts. In a study by Kjell B. Hjerto and Bård Kuvaas from Norway, the aim was to investigate the relationship between three types of conflict (the cognitive work conflict, the emotional relationship conflict and the emotional task conflict) in relation to team effectiveness (team performance and job satisfaction).

It was found that cognitive work conflict negatively affects team performance and emotional relationship conflict negatively affects team job satisfaction. However, it was interesting to find that the emotional task conflict had a positive effect on team performance. It can be inferred that conflicts that are related to the task and do not become personal positively affect performance. In this type of conflict, people remain emotional and yet are task-oriented.

Conflicts are key drivers for creative ideas and innovations. In order to achieve high performance and good quality in a team, conflicts should not be avoided at all but solved constructively.

The method of Constructive Controversy is an interesting approach to creating something new. In this method, those affected are made participants in order to enable a change of perspective and to make decisions.

In this method, knowledge from different perspectives is integrated and conflicts are also resolved. The positive aspect is that many more opinions are put on the table than usual. The team members do not have to represent their own opinion but can accept the pro and con points of view. This allows the discussion to be much more open and taboos are avoided. For a holistic decision-making process, this is a method that is still used far too little to generate different arguments and to promote learning together and constructive argumentation.

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Kjell B. Hjerto, Bård Kuvaas: International Journal of Conflict Management. Vol. 28 No. 1, pp. 50-73