A Culture of (Healthy) Conflict Can Be a Powerful Engine of Innovation
The word “conflict” often carries negative connotations, but any effective leader will tell you that conflict is necessary for innovation and growth. If you’ve developed a culture of transparency and accountability, people will feel free to openly exchange views, which inevitably leads to disagreement. However, this is the process by which ideas are vetted and tested, and it’s a crucial part of your company’s development.
As a founder, I embrace conflict as a necessary part of uncovering, addressing, and resolving issues that affect my company at a strategic level. That said, I haven’t always been the best at managing it.
My first company was an eCommerce pioneer during the original dot-com boom. Selling shoes online made us profitable, but my high-conflict leadership style stifled innovation. A high-conflict culture meant my cofounder and I didn’t have the trust we needed to respond to competitors with a cohesive strategy. We quickly sold the business and went our separate ways, rather than take on a well-funded rival.
Too much conflict can lead to instability, tension, and a toxic work environment. This can make it difficult to bring everyone together around a shared vision. When companies are inordinately prone to conflict, they struggle to retain workers and can’t keep office politics from getting out of hand. Too much conflict can also impede the unfettered exchange of ideas mentioned above, as employees will start to avoid offering candid feedback out of fear of the backlash it might cause.
Companies have to find a middle ground between excessive conflict and too much passivity. The goal should be to encourage employees to be outspoken and honest without being aggressive. A company should always be innovating, and this requires a certain measure of instability. The last thing you want is for your culture to be so nonconfrontational that it becomes static.
Recognizing the Signs of a High- or Low-Conflict Culture
There are many ways to spot high- and low-conflict cultures, and it’s vital to conduct an honest assessment of your own culture to determine where you land. The best way to do this is through tools that allow you to gather feedback from your employees at scale. In addition, 360-degree reviews for your senior leaders can provide an invaluable perspective on how conflict is being dealt with among teams.
A balanced culture also needs a healthy amount of churn. Companies that have stable cultures tend to have low churn, but this isn’t necessarily a positive thing. It could mean your people are not being challenged and have become complacent. On the other hand, high churn indicates too many disruptors and could be a signal of unhealthy levels of conflict.
In addition to these metrics, you can spot a high- or low-conflict culture by observing employees. In a high-conflict culture, employees speak candidly and are always looking to innovate. However, this can lead to one-upmanship and corrosive office politics. Like conflict, competition is a powerful engine of original thinking and productivity, but it can get out of control. There’s a difference between conflict as a means to an end — coming up with creative solutions to problems, for example — and conflict as a form of self-promotion. You don’t want employees starting fights just to get ahead.
While low-conflict cultures are calmer, they’re also less innovative and engaging. Employees are supportive, but this support is purely reflexive. People aren’t saying what they actually think. Again, it’s all a matter of finding balance: Employees should be sensitive to the feelings and concerns of their colleagues, but they shouldn’t be agreeable merely to avoid conflict. In the long run, this isn’t good for relationships because it allows unaddressed problems to get worse. Conflict aversion isn’t good for companies either, as it’ll lead to less innovation, less investment, and slower growth.
Consider your company’s values: Do they emphasize growth and disruption or conciliation and consensus-building? Talk to your employees about their perceptions of your culture. Objectively appraise your performance and make an effort to determine which factors are enabling productivity and which are impeding it.
Then, once you’ve determined whether your company is high- or low-conflict, you can take steps to move it toward the middle.
How to Hire the Right People for Balance
The development of a workplace culture that values conflict without allowing it to become destructive starts with your hiring practices. A healthy team needs people who represent both sides of the conflict spectrum: those who tend to push for disagreement and innovation and those who are capable of mediating conflict and bringing employees together. In other words, you need both disruptors and stabilizers.
Picture an airliner. While it needs powerful engines to provide thrust, it would fall out of the sky without its stabilizers: wings, flaps, and a tail. Your company is the same. Your assertive employees who prevent you from becoming complacent act as your engines of innovation and productivity, but you also need stabilizers who will encourage mutual respect and keep everyone moving in the same direction.
During the hiring process, it’s possible to get a sense of whether applicants are disruptors or stabilizers by paying attention to how they describe themselves. In my experience, descriptors like “driven,” “ambitious,” “direct,” and “I just get stuff done” suggest that a candidate is closer to the disruptor end of the spectrum. On the other hand, candidates who describe themselves as “mature,” “grounded,” or “collaborative” are more likely to be stabilizers.
To elicit these keywords from candidates during an interview, try asking, “What are your personal and professional values?” See whether your interviewees emphasize growth and disruption or conciliation and consensus-building, and be sure to hire for diverse mindsets.
Take a Close Look at Your Values, and Reset If Necessary
Leaders have to be honest with themselves about the types of cultures they’ve established and how their values are responsible for sustaining those cultures. At Torch, we recently decided to reevaluate our values, because we found our first iteration was too focused on safety and consensus, perpetuating a culture of low conflict. We realized velocity and accountability were underrepresented in our values, and we’re course-correcting now.
Once you’ve come to an agreement about the kind of culture you’re trying to develop, it’s critical to socialize your values across the entire company. For example, tell employees how you think they should approach conflict. Leaders should position themselves as mediators, but they should also encourage employees to sort problems out for themselves. Make it clear that critical feedback and productive conflict are welcome, while disrespectful behavior and malicious office politics are not.
We often hear about authenticity in the context of companies’ relationships with consumers, but it should also be at the heart of the relationships within a company. Leaders must put the company’s stated values into practice. If there’s groupthink or infighting among members of the leadership team, employees are bound to notice. When leaders are up front about their values while clearly making an effort to put them into practice, employees will see that they work for a company with honesty and integrity.
Despite the negative associations that come to mind when we hear the word “conflict,” certain kinds of conflict reflect a commitment to authenticity. When you tell someone what you really think — even if your opinion is critical — you demonstrate that you have enough respect for that person to be honest with them. Although conflict is almost always uncomfortable, it’s often an indicator of how healthy a relationship is.
As long as you have the right people in your company to keep conflict in check, your organization will be stronger when it embraces diversity of thought and unfettered dialogue — whether all parties are in agreement or not.
Cameron Yarbrough is the CEO and cofounder of Torch.