Constructive Conflict

Constructive Conflict

There are a great many company cultures in the world that go out of their way to avoid conflict of any kind.  And, while the intent is good — nobody wants to work in a combative workplace — the common practice of lumping all conflict together into a single bucket and trying to toss it out the window winds up being counterproductive in many ways.  You see, conflict isn’t always a bad thing; certain types of conflict actually make us better at what we do.  When we engage in constructive conflict, we hone our ideas, challenge our own assumptions and biases, and push others to do the same.  In an environment completely absent all conflict, we might as well all just be “yes men” and simply rubber-stamp every idea that comes around.  Successful businesses are not built that way.  Here are some things to think about when it comes to engaging in constructive conflict.

Innovation is messy.  It’s about constructive conflict — not agreement.  There are twists and turns — not straight lines.  – Jeff DeGraff

Challenges Sharpen Ideas

Just as a knife won’t stay sharp unless it’s sharpened by something with grit, ideas don’t achieve their highest state without being challenged.  The best ideas in the world started out as a nugget of thought by someone, which was then challenged and questioned, honed and sharpened, until it reached its full potential.  We know this intuitively, and yet so many companies avoid conflict and challenge by all means necessary.  We’re filling our organizations with nodding heads and “yes-men” (and “yes-women”) who don’t dare question or challenge anyone else, for fear that they’ll be labeled as “difficult” or “intimidating”.  The simple fact is, however, that constructive conflict allows us to challenge ideas, not people; it allows us to help others to polish and sharpen their ideas into something better than just the thought bubble of a single person; it requires that we come to the table with data and anticipation of the challenges that may come.  In short, challenging each other in a constructive manner ups the game of everyone at the table — which is what we should all strive for.

Every human being is entitled to courtesy and consideration. Constructive criticism is not only to be expected but sought. – Margaret Chase Smith

Criticize Ideas, Not People

To engage in constructive conflict, there is one Golden Rule that we have to keep in mind — that we challenge ideas and not people.  We criticize the expression of a thought, but not the thought itself.  Our goal is not to make someone feel inferior; it’s not to label them as incapable of good ideas; and it’s certainly not to raise our own egos above those with whom we work.  Rather, we need to understand that it’s the ideas that we’re challenging, the ideas that we’re sharpening, and the ideas that we all want to see rise to a higher level of excellence.  We can’t afford to fall into ad hominem attacks on the people who come up with the ideas, or the people who present the idea, or the people who collect data to support the idea.  We can challenge every aspect of that idea — the expression, the content, the underlying data, etc — but we cannot challenge the person themselves.  Everyone in an organization should have an equal opportunity to present their ideas and to defend them without feeling threatened personally or professionally.  This can be a challenge, but it’s an essential one for a company to truly engage itself in constructive conflict.

Constructive criticism is about finding something good and positive to soften the blow to the real critique of what really went on. – Paula Abdul

One Good Point, One Bad Point

Another good ground rule to put into place when considering how to implement a culture that allows for constructive conflict is the “one good point, one bad point” rule.  This rule is a simple one, that basically requires everyone who wishes to engage in constructive criticism and conflict to first acknowledge something good about the point being made or the idea being put forth, before continuing into the criticism.  There’s a psychological reason for this on both sides — on the side of the person giving the criticism, it’s a way to humanize the other person and to acknowledge the value of some core part of the idea; similarly, for the person receiving the criticism, it’s a way to affirm that there is value in what was being proposed or raised before dropping into the less-satisfactory arena of criticism and conflict.  Just as we should never criticize the person bringing the ideas to the table, we should strive to first affirm their value before we switch into criticizing something that they may have spent a lot of time and energy working on.


If there is no criticism, you become lazy. But it should be constructive, and it should be the truth. – A.R. Rahman

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