There Is Creative Conflict And Then There Is Creating Conflict

Last Monday I wrote about how intrinsic motivation can often be more effective than external motivators like rewards and punishments, but suggested non-profit workers not allow people to use that finding to insist they will be more productive if they are poorly paid.

I fear I may need to reiterate that point having read the following in a recent Harvard Business Review piece, (my emphasis)

Consistent with these famous case studies, scientific research shows that creativity and innovation can be enhanced by reducing team harmony. For instance, a recent study of 100 product development teams found that two common disruptors of team harmony, namely diversity and task uncertainty, were positively associated with creative performance. Likewise, a review of theoretical and quantitative studies showed that teams are often more creative when they have fewer rather than more resources (for example, time, money, and people). Furthermore, teams that are able to engage in productive task conflict — expressing disagreements, negotiating between different views, and working under a certain amount of tension — tend to be more innovative.

Actually, I only call attention to that phrase as a segue to the major topic of the piece which is that too much harmony may inhibit creativity.  This doesn’t imply a laissez-faire approach to team management is the way to profitability.

Just as we don’t want people suggesting that under funding and under resourcing groups is for their own good, this passage shouldn’t be read to suggest that fomenting dissension or creating hostile work environments will increase innovation.

There are some suggestions for leaders in the piece about how to introduce a moderate amount of conflict and tension, but I want to focus on the section of the article that emphasizes the necessity to have a team composition which is able to process the tension to constructive ends.  Employing or introducing a degree of discord has to be deliberate and considered rather than randomly tossed out with the idea that uncertainty will get people’s blood pumping.

Make sure that the team has the right personality characteristics. While one size does not fit all, teams with higher aggregate levels of conscientiousness and agreeableness will be better equipped to manage diversity and conflict. Team members will be more likely to hold themselves accountable to agreements, will try to smooth over relationship conflicts, and will ensure that the task focus is not derailed by personal dramas.

Increase psychological safety. Psychological safety creates an atmosphere of participation and trust that allows members to actively engage in risky social behaviors such as disagreements and criticisms, as well as nondefensive and open responses to those risky behaviors. In a recent study, intragroup trust was found to be the best predictor of productive task conflict, without creating relationship or personal conflict.

Give the team a chance to settle. Sometimes there is no substitute for the passage of time. Teams that develop sufficient familiarity create both emotional connections and precedents that allow them to productively work through tensions. For example, a NASA study found that teams with a shared working history made half as many errors as newly formed teams. Loyalty is a powerful source of resilience, as religious groups, movements, and families have always known. And in the absence of a shared history, team members with similar values are more likely to put up with tension and turn task conflict into a positive outcome.

You are likely to recall situations in your own experience when you witnessed groups thriving under similar conditions where conflict and tension helped drive the effort rather than derailed it.  Artistic pursuits by their very nature revel in embracing challenges and solving problems.

But as the article suggests, while it might be self-perpetuating once established, this environment is one that needs to be monitored and maintained because it exists in a balance between unmotivated satisfaction and destructive conflict.   While you might be able to recall experiences where groups thrived in a tense environment, if you have worked in non-profit arts and culture long enough you are even more likely to recall toxic, resentment filled environments and/or organizational cultures which seemed paralyzed by avoiding any appearance of conflict.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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