For good ideas and true innovation, you need human interaction, conflict, argument, debate.” — Margaret Heffernan

As a mediator my main role is to help people find resolution to their conflict. You may be surprised to know that I quite often tell my clients that conflict is not always a bad thing. Conflicts are an important part of life as they lead to changes and generate insights. When well managed, they open doors to exploring different points of view and search for more creative solutions. The problem is not the conflict itself but rather how to handle it.

We all know that no matter where we are, there will always be that person who likes to disagree with others and stir things up, “the contrarian”. We don’t always like contrarians, do we? But in a study conducted by the Stanford Graduate School of Business (SGSB) it was found that having a contrarian in a work group can actually be a good thing. They concluded that when a contrary opinion was presented in a non-confrontational way, it led to a reflective discussion of pros and cons and consequently the team performed better and produced a better result.

They also concluded that the teams that had a loner or a very small group of contrarians performed better than the groups where either everybody agreed with one other or everybody disagreed with one another.

Having a “devil’s advocate” can be a good thing. A positive devil’s advocate is one who sees the differences, is able to communicate them in a positive non-confrontational way thus forcing the team to extend its research and thinking to all pros and cons. This is called “healthy conflict” or “skewed conflict.” If no one is playing devil’s advocate, this could be something that the leader may take on or even provoke in his team.

However, as we know, not all contrarians bring  a positive note, and whether a conflict helps or hurts the team is a job for the leader to assess and work through. The structure of such conflict is crucial to its success. Communication is key here. Always stress the importance of positive communication in order to keep the creative juices flowing as opposed to escalated, emotional brawl.

When presented with a negative oppressive contrary opinion, the leader can, tactfully,  thank the contrarian for bringing a different perspective to the table, acknowledge the different perspective as one that the team has not thought of yet and then ask the team how they could make best use of that information to improve upon what they already have. By maintaining a positive note, a competent leader will prove that “healthy conflicts improve creativity, decisions and outcomes.”

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