People often try to avoid conflict in the workplace, but it turns out that some conflict—specifically, creative abrasion—can be quite healthy.
What is creative abrasion? This approach embraces healthy conflict in the workplace and encourages diverse perspectives to fuel creativity and drive better outcomes. It also allows businesses to harness the power of differing viewpoints, challenge conventional thinking and unlock the full potential of their teams.
I’ve had the opportunity to build the U.S. Army team for RAPP in Chicago, where diversity in background, age, gender, perspective and experience was a key tenet. Over the last four years, we have increased the number of staff from zero to more than 100 employees. We have produced beautiful work, and we’ve had epic failures. But overall, we have built a culture where diversity is the norm, and differing perspectives make us better.
When diverse perspectives clash, they spark fresh ideas and new approaches. We have tapped into a wealth of knowledge by encouraging team members to voice their unique viewpoints. This has led to more creative and effective solutions. We have seen this creative conflict result in increased adaptability, ownership and creative solutions to problems.
How to foster creative abrasion within your team
Ready to introduce healthy conflict within your team? Start with these four strategies.
1. Create a culture of psychological safety
Create a safe space where team members feel comfortable challenging ideas and expressing their opinions. Employees who feel they can show their true selves without fear of negative consequences are more likely to contribute their ideas.
According to author Shane Snow, psychological safety means having the assurance that one’s words or actions won’t be held against them, provided they are well-intentioned. This assumption of good intent is a cornerstone in cultivating such a nurturing environment. Leaders have a pivotal role in fostering psychological safety.
Amy Edmondson also points out in her TEDx talk that leaders can nurture psychological safety by framing work as a learning opportunity rather than an execution challenge, acknowledging their own fallibility and embodying curiosity by posing questions. This approach not only cultivates a culture of psychological safety but also positions leaders to drive stronger engagement, innovation and overall team performance.
2. Establish guidelines for respectful engagement
While healthy conflict in the workplace can be a powerful tool, it can also easily escalate into confrontation. We have seen that on our team, and it’s important to guide team members to build relationships and show empathy. Educate the team on the difference between constructive and disrespectful engagement so you can maintain productivity and prevent conflicts from becoming personal.
Additionally, in cross-functional teams where diverse knowledge and expertise are at play, creating a safe and inclusive environment is paramount. It’s essential that every team member feels valued and comfortable sharing their ideas and opinions. Leaders can foster such an environment by encouraging participation and engagement through open-ended questions, inviting feedback, acknowledging contributions and addressing concerns. Steering clear of dominating conversations, avoiding interruptions or dismissals and employing active listening are effective ways to show respect and understanding toward differing perspectives.
This respectful engagement framework not only promotes healthy conflict but also enhances a collaborative spirit, making the team more cohesive and better equipped to take advantage of the power of creative abrasion.
3. Facilitate cross-collaboration
While the importance of collaboration in business is well-known, cross-collaboration is even more critical. Create cross-functional teams from different backgrounds, departments and working styles. By bringing together diverse groups of people, you can tap into the collective genius of your teams, where ideas become more powerful and creative through multiple perspectives.
Encourage the use of language markers to promote respectful debate. Phrases like “Let me play devil’s advocate” or “I want to push the thinking deeper here” can help foster a culture of constructive criticism, making it easier for team members to express differing opinions without fear of retaliation or personal attacks.
Engage with ideas, not individuals. This aspect can be challenging, given our inclination to combine our egos with our work. Communicate to your team that personal attacks have no place in discussions and that debates should always be aimed at refining and enhancing the idea at hand.
4. Encourage employees to challenge assumptions
We should always enable our teams to question assumptions, explore alternative perspectives and provide evidence-backed arguments. We don’t do something today simply because we have done it that way before—challenging the status quo is a core value of our team to develop new ways of solving problems and create better solutions. In the last four years, with exponential growth and a challenging business environment through COVID-19, we have had to reinvent ourselves multiple times. This behavior has led to our team’s ability to adapt and succeed.
The key to successful creative abrasion is to debate ideas in a nonpersonal way. Aim to attack problems, not each other. By embracing diverse perspectives and challenging established norms, we have unlocked our team’s potential, driven innovation and consistently succeeded over adversity.
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