UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School


Why you should be inciting conflict in your organization


Although it may seem counterintuitive, you need to incite conflicts within your team or organization. It just needs to be the right type of conflict, and it needs to be managed effectively, notes Mabel Miguel professor of organizational behavior at UNC Kenan-Flagler.

“An organization that has no conflict will become obsolete and dead,” Miguel notes. “It would be an organization with no new ideas where people don’t articulate different views and where there are no value discussions. Conflict increases cohesiveness and creativity and reduces stagnation.”

Miguel encourages her students to incite functional conflict to force others to clarify their views, ideas and priorities. In contrast, dysfunctional conflict lowers productivity, morale and job satisfaction and increases stress, absenteeism and turnover within organizations, she adds. Many people shy away from inciting conflict because they view it negatively, as something associated with wars, battles and stress, Miguel notes. Much of this negative connotation comes from conflicts that dissolve into personal conflicts.

“Sharing of ideas, airing different opinions and brainstorming – all that is intellectual conflict.”

To incite or provoke functional conflict:

  • Assemble a heterogeneous team
  • Meet regularly and often
  • Actively fight “groupthink” and make vigorous debate the rule
  • Assign people roles beyond their products and geographical or functional areas like devil’s advocate, visionary or intellectual watchdog
  • Divide people into groups with different and often competing responsibilities
  • Use techniques to provoke creativity and looking at things from other perspectives.
  • Use role reversals, bring in outsiders or other experts to ask tough questions and use unexpected hypothetical questions

Still, conflict needs to be carefully managed so it does not deteriorate to dysfunctional conflict. Miguel advises students to identify early the type of conflict that might evolve into dysfunctional conflict. Personal differences, a lack of information, ambiguous goals and power differences could all lead to ineffective conflict.

To avoid dysfunctional conflict:

  • Defuse it as it starts (apologize, participate, focus on the problem as a common enemy)
  • Mediate an escalating conflict by cooling folks down, focus on the future
  • Focus on issues, not personalities
  • Be aware of yourself and others: Why do they see an issue the way they do?
  • Understand personalities, values, skills, motivations and hot buttons
  • Break up natural coalitions and assign people with different interests to work together
  • Frame decisions as friendly collaborations by rallying around common goals, injecting humor and suggesting key assumptions if a discussion stalls
  • Use a win/win approach as much as possible