Why Can’t We Have More Conflict?

Our brains are great at tricking us into believing that we have the right idea. There are all sorts of cognitive distortions and cognitive biases that prevent us from abandoning old ideas that might not work, or ideas that are only based on partial information when there is better, new information that we could use to solve this problem as a leader. Why do we do this? It seems like most of us have been acculturated that to have a strong opinion and to stick with it is a sign of leadership, greatness, or power. In reality, teams that can get over these biases are the ones that create the best outcomes. There are a few key topics to discuss to do this well, though.

The first is the difference between task conflict and personal conflict. Most of us rapidly cause task conflict to deteriorate into personal conflict. It is hard for most people to debate an idea without people taking it personally. Reminding people that we are going to have a conversation where we need to have task conflict is a good way to help the best idea win.  It is an easy way to help diffuse some of the emotion or anxiety that goes along with getting people to disagree on a topic they care deeply about. The opposite of agreement is not disagreement; it is apathy. Getting people to be not apathetic and to push and shove an idea around without it becoming a personal issue can be done if the leader reminds the group that the conflict here is about the task and not about the issues.

Another factor that drives this is that oftentimes we confuse our opinion with our values. Very quickly, we believe that if we are changing our opinion on something, we are in some way changing our core values. People fight about their core values, but opinions are easy to change. It would help each person in the room to remember that we are not talking about them changing a core belief structure, just simply how they think about a topic because they may now have new information.

“The conflict here is about the task and not about the issues.

The principle that underlies a group’s ability to do this is one that we have written about before – Psychological Safety. There is ample evidence that this sort of task conflict works best when the level of psychological safety is high. These same lines of research show that this produces not only better outcomes and more creative outcomes, but it also produces safer outcomes in hospital and manufacturing settings. This is another reason that psychological safety is the beginning of team growth, not the end of it. If you, as a leader, can help the team feel psychologically safe, you give them the opportunity to truly work on positive change through productive conflict. Of course, these are deep and complex issues. For further reading on this, check out people like Shankar Vedantam and Adam Grant.


  • Terence Bostic, Ph.D.

    Terence is a Managing Partner at CMA Global, where he has been helping executives develop engaged and more effective talent pools since 2003. He is a licensed psychologist in Missouri and is repeatedly published as the principal author in international, peer-reviewed journals on issues of stress management, personal resiliency, and psychological wellbeing. He is also a member of the American Psychological Association, the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, and the Society for Consulting Psychology.

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