Productive Conflict for Innovation

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People have different viewpoints, opinions, and look at the same issue through different lenses. Under the right set of circumstances, these differences can escalate to conflict in the work environment. How the conflict is managed determines if the conflict can be used for innovation or if it is destructive to the team. When there is conflict, there is the potential for team learning to occur.

Team learning occurs when there is a flow of information between members of the team, feedback is given freely and easily accepted and everyone’s contribution is valued. The following are environments where team conflict can lead to team learning.

  • People feel safe to disagree without fear of reprisal or being bullied.
  • Conversations are focused on topics and issues, versus ‘getting personal’.
  • Everyone wants to understand the various opinions and actively debate them.
  • The questions asked are to promote learning and understanding, versus game playing and trying to one up each other.
  • The questions are not about I and you, but are around learning as a team. This moves the whole frame of reference from a zero sum game to ‘we’.

According to Peter Senge and The Fifth Discipline, this is more than just teamwork. Its understanding how to create a space where people are able to relax, work hard, and be comfortable with each other. This will ultimately lead to innovative ideas and complex problem solving. To start to build this environment, consider the following questions:

  • What should the role of leadership be on our team?
  • Who should facilitate the meetings?
  • What should the decision making process be? Will it build solidarity and develop capacity?
  • What is the role of each person on the team?
  • How does the team ensure that each person’s ideas are heard and truly listened too?

Having a team that becomes comfortable with feedback builds trust, listening skills, and integrity. This then leads to collaboration, engagement, and innovation.



Senge, Peter (1990).The fifth discipline: the art and practice of the learning organization. New York: Doubleday.