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True collaboration embraces conflict

by Leigh Weiss on January 26, 2011


leigh-weiss's picture

True collaboration embraces conflict

Editor's note: Research by McKinsey & Company's Organization Practice finds that better collaborative capabilities help companies achieve superior financial performance. These results are supported by academic research, which shows that the ability to collaborate in networks is more important than raw individual talent to innovativeness; it also boosts employees’ overall performance and loyalty.1

This is the first in a series of posts from McKinsey about healthy collaboration and how managers make it work successfully.2 In coming months, McKinsey authors will discuss different types of collaboration and the places where it happens, such as knowledge sharing, informal & social networks, talent mobility, and formal communities of collaborative practice. We'll also explore the hypothesis that the proper type of collaboration depends on the type of organization and can take various forms across geographic and vertically integrated groups.

Effective collaboration is essential for creating value. Indeed, it's one of the reasons we create corporations, because organizations are more effective than individuals at allocating resources. But knowing and doing are two different things. As organizations grow, collaboration can suffer—particularly across silos, as people learn to work for the benefit of their own group rather than the whole. This lost potential in collaboration is a huge, untapped source of competitive advantage, one that executives appear to be aware of. In a 2005 McKinsey survey only 25 percent of senior executives would describe their organizations as effective at sharing knowledge across boundaries, even though nearly 80 percent acknowledged such coordination was crucial to growth.3

One of the most difficult and interesting aspects of collaboration is conflict. True collaboration can’t exist without personal commitment, and commitment brings with it the possibility of engaging in healthy conflict and debate. If I go to a meeting but don’t have the chance to test my views against contrary opinions, I may leave the room saying “yes” to initiatives without feeling any personal commitment to them. Before you can have healthy debate, you need to establish a baseline of trust that makes it safe to voice dissenting views. You may also need to develop people’s skills in areas such as how to de-personalize ideas, how to ensure that everyone’s views get heard, and how to make it clear that once the debate is done, the decision is binding on everyone taking part, even if their view wasn’t adopted.

Since employees watch their managers’ behavior for cues on the organization’s values, managers can signal the acceptability of conflict by engaging in debate with their seniors. If employees see managers acquiesce to their senior managers without open debate, they’re likely to follow suit. If on the other hand, there is an open commitment to debate and an explicit understanding that debate moves the organization to better decisions, then employees are more likely to bring their ideas into the arena.

Role modeling is only one of several ways that management can signal to employees that conflict is a natural part of collaboration, one that can be managed successfully in the organization. Companies can overtly state that conflict is okay; at McKinsey, for example, the obligation to dissent is a core value because we believe it gets us to better answers when solving complex issues for clients. This obligation is reinforced at every level of training and in company discussions of firm values. Skills in encouraging and managing healthy conflict successfully can be part of ongoing training programs. And of course, managers can reinforce these principles by ensuring that employees don’t suffer negative consequences solely for disagreeing or introducing constructive conflict into a conversation.

We’ve seen many interesting examples of ways to manage conflict effectively and openly in organizations.

  • Some groups use a visual symbol – a yellow card, for example – in meetings as a way for individuals to signal that they have an objection or that they feel their view (or someone else’s) is being overlooked. Bob Sutton and other management researchers have noted the tendency for senior people to dominate conversation within meetings. Raising the yellow card signals that the objector is acting within the group-defined agreement of behavior and serves as a cue to remind the others that the group has agreed on the necessity and value of conflicting opinions and debate.
  • In a real-time production environment, quick and informal meetings can resolve issues and fix small problems before they become big ones. Following a series of late deliveries (complete with subsequent recriminations) at one aerospace company, the global head of operations began a policy where if a conflict arose or a mistake was discovered along the production line, all work in that section stopped immediately. The managers of that section, along with those of the sections immediately upstream and downstream, gathered quickly in a team room for a fast meeting to resolve the issue. These meetings rarely took more than 20 minutes, sometimes less than 10, and occurred only a few times a week. But they were effective in quickly resolving problems that might otherwise simmer or create larger issues. Stopping the production line may look expensive, but it was less costly than the mistakes that would otherwise have occurred.

Both of these examples show how managers implemented simple but effective ways for employees to air their conflicts, to openly debate their opinions in a safe environment.

Of course, managing conflict is only one aspect of creating healthy collaboration. In this series , we’ll also explore the roles of people in the collaboration network (brokers and bottlenecks), focusing on collaboration as a means to the organization’s goals, and the need for accountability. We’ll also detail the steps that companies must take to make their collaboration deliver effective impact, in terms of business success and employee morale. Finally, we’ll also look at other opinions on the role and importance of collaboration, including the views of INSEAD’s Morten Hansen who argues in a recent book that a focus on collaboration for its own sake can distract managers from the goals that effective collaboration is intended to achieve and that collaboration should be targeted to the places it adds value.4

How do you encourage healthy conflict resolution in your organization? What is the business value of healthy conflict in your organization?


1.   Mohan Subramaniam and Mark A. Youndt, “The influence of intellectual capital on the types of innovative capabilities,” Academy of Management Journal, 2005, volume 48, number 3, pp. 450–63; Ronald S. Burt and Don Ronchi, “Teaching executives to see social capital,” Social Science Research, 36, 2007, pp. 1156–83.

2. The ideas in these posts are explained in greater detail in our paper, “How do I drive effective collaboration to deliver real business impact?” by Carolyn Aiken, Scott Keller, Johanne Lavoie, and Leigh M. Weiss, September 2009, McKinsey & Co.

3.   “The McKinsey Global Survey of Business Executives, July 2005,” The McKinsey Quarterly, web exclusive, at

4. Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity, and Reap Big Results, Morten T. Hansen, Harvard Business Press, May 2009

McKinsey & Company is a partner of the Management Innovation eXchange.

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sarah-vivier's picture
I definitely agree with your post. Conflict can and should be constructive, but only when dealt with effectively. I have myself experienced tensions and conflicts in the workplace, that were handled badly or not handled at all. Instead of looking at it as an opportunity for change, conflict appears to most people as an incident that needs to be burried deep and never dealt with.
I have written a post about a conflict that arose in the company where I did a work placement last year:
Thanks for your thoughts!
todd-noebel-sphr's picture
Really enjoy the post.  I frequently remind people that conflict, in and of itself, is not negative or destructive.  The issue is how we engage conflict.

Conflict, when handled appropriately, is the crucible in which we strengthen and test our best ideas.

Would love to read the paper, “How do I drive effective collaboration to deliver real business impact?”.  Is there an archive available were I can access the paper?
elad-sherf's picture

Hey Leigh,

Great post. I find the idea of pre-agreed upon mechanisms to showing dissent and settling conflicts as an important part of a collaborative environment. The fact that they are pre-decided and are acceptable by all participants as fair before the issue arises is an important factor in their impact and adoption. I took you initial idea and developed it further in my own post ( Can’t wait to read the rest of your posts on the subject.

Thanks for sharing


mike-myatt's picture
Hi Leigh:

I enjoyed your post, and have always believed conflict to be the precursor to opportunity. Whether you see opposing views and positions as conflict or opportunity says a lot about you as a person, and especially gives insightful commentary on who you are as a leader. Being able to discern and debate subjective positions with objectivity is an art form that must be present for effective leadership. 

When it comes to authentic, transparent discourse, motivations matter. Those who place the care and regard of others above advancing their personal, positional, professional or political agendas will garner trust, respect and influence. You see it is precisely by not attempting to steamroll, manipulate or outsmart others, that you’ll be able to effectively convey your message even to an audience that might not otherwise be willing or receptive. Moreover, by having open and honest interactions you might actually learn something… 

Here a few more thoughts on conflict that you might find useful:

ellen-weber's picture

Leigh, thanks for your cool insights here to create a safe setting for people to exchange ideas and support one another. As I read your thoughtful post - I saw many new reasons why diverse contributions are so desperately craved and so rarely cultivated. Your wisdom could take us yet another step closer! Thanks! In my new MBA Leadership  textbook I suggested a few  brainpowered tools to build innovation across diversity as one way to novelty. In that book, I referred to and quoted  recent McKinsey research on why change rarely follows workshops, and showed novel  ideas to build together - grateful for that fact. You folks at McKinsey provide wonderful tools:-)