High team performance is often described in terms of harmony — everyone pulling together. But in the workplace, this kind of harmony isn’t always healthy, and can be a sign of deeper problems. On innovation teams, high performance is defined not by harmony, but by its opposite: conflict; more specifically, high-performance in creative teams is defined by positive, healthy conflict.
By understanding how to foster and derive value from positive conflict, team leaders and members can create the foundation needed to solve hard problems, define their values, and create a sense of collective identity.
a true story of positive conflict, delayed
“We can’t let this fly. We won’t learn anything and it isn’t safe.”
The words hung in the air in the Google [X] conference room. It was late on a Thursday afternoon, sometime in fall of 2012. The technical leads of Project Loon, at that time less than a dozen people, had gathered to review upcoming flight tests.
In 2012 I was the scientific and technical leader of Project Loon, a secret R&D effort with aspirations to provide connectivity to billions of unconnected people by means of high-altitude balloons and LTE. Nearly a decade later, Loon would be wound down by Alphabet, but not after providing service to millions of people in the Caribbean, South America, and central Africa.
Cliff, our head of embedded systems was speaking; even sitting down, his physical presence and intensity filled the room. He continued:
“The flight firmware is nothing but hacks on top of hacks. It was never meant to do what we are doing now. We need to stop flying, and focus on finishing Major Tom.”
Major Tom was the next-generation firmware, which had been in progress for months but had been delayed by the constant drumbeat of test flights, each requiring yet another modification of the original flight firmware. Cliff and the others were fed up, and I understood their concerns.
I also understood the concerns of Mike, the operations lead of the project. Mike was pushing an aggressive flight schedule to get us ready for the upcoming public launch in New Zealand; the only way we could be ready would be to have enough operational experience under our belt. Mike wasn’t in the room.
Mike knew that the engineers were grumbling, but they kept pulling off minor miracles to support the next test. As far as he knew, they could keep doing that indefinitely — because he hadn’t asked, and the engineers hadn’t pushed back hard. Negative conflict was brewing.
But that day in the flight review meeting, Cliff was finally pushing back, and I was the one to deal with it. I knew that the present path was unsustainable, but I also knew that finishing Major Tom would take time: weeks, perhaps a month or more. A flight testing delay of a month would be a huge deal for our schedule. It might blow our public launch date, which would be very public, embarrassing, and expensive. The wheels were already in motion.
If we were going to put the brakes on the flight schedule, I was the one that Mike would listen to. It was up to me to make the call, and then have my own confrontation with Mike, which I wasn’t looking forward to.
I looked at Cliff. Everyone in the room was looking at me.
“Thanks, Cliff. I’ll talk to Mike. We will scrub the tests and get Major Tom done.”
positive conflict and the innovation team
As any manager can tell you, the personalities that make up a team make a huge difference in team cohesion and performance. A team that fights all the time isn’t a team, but a team that never disagrees is leaving most of its brain power and critical thinking at the door. Positive, healthy conflict is necessary for any team to function well, but it is even more important in innovation and product teams where differing points of view are essential.
the characteristics of positive vs. negative conflict
Conflict is an inevitable part of workplace relationships. And while it is often uncomfortable, conflict can be a positive force for innovation and overall team performance when it happens constructively, addresses meaningful issues, and is resolved expeditiously.
Positive, healthy conflict is about fighting for ideas, principles, or values. Frequently, healthy conflict is a conflict between values; e.g. “we need to work faster,” vs. “we need to ensure quality and safety.” Positive conflict can also be about fighting for people, e.g. “I believe Sara is the best leadership candidate.” Fighting against ideas, values, or people is rarely positive.
Positive conflict, when handled well, can be energizing for the group and leads to creative problem-solving and better outcomes. It can help the team work through and operationalize its values, and create stories that become an enduring part of team culture and identity.
What is negative conflict? Conflict is negative when it is framed in zero-sum terms; if I win, you loose, and vice versa. Conflict is negative when it becomes personal, or is driven by factors external to job performance and creating a healthy, productive, safe workplace.
unexpressed conflict is always negative
Conflict is negative when it is not expressed, no matter how “positive” it might be in motivation. Unexpressed conflict festers, and leads to opaque, confusing outcomes. “Why did Sara suddenly quit?” “Oh, you didn’t know? She’s been unhappy for years with how you run the team.”
Conflict avoidance leads to conflict debt, the sum of all undiscussed and unresolved issues, which accumulates over time and will eventually destroy team performance.
I’m far from the first person to observe that healthy conflict sparks innovation and creativity in the workplace, and there are plenty of resources out there to help you with healthy conflict resolution. Now that we’ve explored what positive, healthy conflict is, let's discuss the factors that support positive conflict in an innovation team.
culture and conflict
Corporate culture generally, and Silicon Valley corporate culture specifically, is highly conflict-avoidant. Conflict avoidance is a form of negative conflict. It leads to conflict debt, resulting in unexpressed problems, interpersonal tensions, and opaque, difficult-to-understand outcomes. When an organization has a well-established pattern of conflict avoidance, it can be very difficult to foster healthy, productive conflict within an innovation or product team.
Modeling positive-conflict behavior and establishing a positive-conflict culture at the beginning is much easier than turning around a passive-aggressive, conflict-avoidant culture once it has taken root. Whether you are founding a positive-conflict culture, or working your way through accumulated conflict debt, three factors are critical: safety, incentives, and leadership
safety and conflict
Safety and conflict may sound contradictory, but without a high degree of psychological safety it is very hard to have positive conflict. Psychological safety is a feeling of being safe from punishment or exclusion if you make a mistake or express an unpopular opinion.
Without psychological safety, negative opinions or concerns go unexpressed because the fear of negative consequences outweighs perceived benefits to the individual or group.
By leading with respect and empathy, and by framing conflict as fighting for ideas or principles and not fighting against others, we can both support psychological safety and model positive conflict at the same time.
incentives and conflict
Incentivising conflict may sound like a bad idea, but without a framework to encourage and normalize positive, healthy conflict, you are incentivising negative, passive-aggressive conflict instead. There are lots of ways to incentivise positive conflict, but whatever approach is chosen it must be applied systematically and routinely to be effective.
For example, managers can routinely reserve the last ten minutes of one-on-one meetings two ask two questions: “what am I doing that you would like me to do more of,” and “what is one thing that you think I’m doing wrong or would like me to do differently.” This creates a structure in which reports are encouraged to express both supporting and conflicting sentiments.
And if the first response to any respectful, conflicting sentiment is a sincere “thank you,” you are creating a powerful social incentive for this type of feedback, and psychological safety will increase.
Other practices, such as public acknowledgements and spot-bonuses for “truth telling” and working sessions in which compliments and praise follow identifying problems in a blame-free way are helpful.
leadership and conflict
The actions of managers and leaders are the most powerful factor determining the motivation and productivity of a team. Good leaders set expectations and build culture, and create models for others to follow.
One of the most important things leaders can do to support positive-conflict culture is to normalize conflict. This means actively undermining tropes that equate harmony with productivity. When conflict comes up in a meeting, rather than saying “let’s take that off-line,” a positive-conflict leader will say “let’s hash this out,” and referee a productive discussion.
Normalizing conflict means acknowledging differing viewpoints, highlighting conflicting priorities, and encouraging the timely, in-the-moment resolution of disputes.
Good leaders don’t avoid conflict, but focus on creating positive conflict resolution. Good leaders don’t avoid disagreement, but reward those who disagree respectfully. Good leaders model honesty and empathy, thus building trust and psychological safety. And good leaders own their own mistakes and shortcomings, thus encouraging others to do the same.
Positive, healthy conflict is a central engine of innovation. It draws out alternative ideas and encourages constructive engagement. It builds psychological safety and drives the rapid discovery of non-obvious problems and opportunities. It helps teams define values and creates culture. In short, positive conflict helps everyone and the entire team solve problems faster and work together better. But positive conflict doesn’t happen unless we create the proper environment, fostering a positive conflict culture with safety, incentives, and leadership.