How to Create Functional Conflict in an Organization

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Functional conflict can be good for an organization. It promotes the healthy exchange of ideas, clears the air and promotes creative thought and keen decision-making. Some companies pride themselves on having a collegial culture, and the idea of conflict is anathema to them, but one of the benefits of functional conflict is that good things happen when opposing views go head-to-head. Progressive leaders know how to generate functional conflict within a team when needed.

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)

Functional conflict involves allowing employees to express different viewpoints and resolve differences in a healthy way that can encourage innovation and new ideas. It contrasts with the dysfunctional type of conflict that has no benefit to the company and only harms communication, efficiency and workplace morale.

Leading by Example

Lead by example. A leader who wants to generate opposing opinions encourages and rewards the behavior. She is proactive in speaking with — and listening to — others who may not agree with her.

When she encounters a different point of view, she thoughtfully considers the pros and cons of the argument. She also encourages dialogue around the divergent viewpoint.

Using a Devil's Advocate

Assign a devil’s advocate during decision-making processes. Identify one person on the team who will push the group in a different direction. Challenge him to continue to question the thinking: Why would we do that? Who will object? What can we gain? What if it does not work?

Allow others to help the devil in the role. Acknowledge when your devil’s advocate has done a good job of getting team members to really think through the implications of their decisions. This should be a rotating role so that everyone has the opportunity.

Get Naysayers Involved

Involve the naysayers. When you set up task forces and special committees, include individuals who are likely to be negative. The point is not to reward resistance, but to train new behaviors. Naysayers will not quietly conform to the status quo.

Use the naysayers to uncover potential problems with a plan and, more importantly, to generate solutions. In doing so, you will also create support and more viable decisions for the long run. The Walt Disney Company is known for doing this; their meetings can be notoriously unwieldy but it is intentional. Company leaders believe that creativity and innovation come out of chaotic meetings.

Create Systems to Reward Dissenting Opinions

Some companies have found it helpful to create internal programs that either reward or never punish divergent opinions brought to the table. This can even include systems that allow, and even encourage, employees to criticize their bosses. The idea is to make employees unafraid of bringing real issues to the table so they can be addressed instead of swept under the rug. Some companies that participate in these types of practices include IBM and Hewlett Packard.

Considerations for Encouraging Functional Conflict

Acknowledge that more than one person can be right. This creates an attitude more conducive to good conflict. Learn to use language that encourages open communication while you work through conflict. Your first comment to a dissenter might be, for example, “Please tell me more.”

Also remember that dissenting arguments should be grounded in facts. The purpose of functional conflict is not to delay decision making indefinitely. Good leaders may need to intervene in a group that is caught in a cycle of endless meetings and dysfunctional conflict.