Skip to main content
For Business
December 11, 2013

Why conflict can be good, and praise can be bad

A high-performing team needs a strong social dynamic. Nobody likes drama and tension, and very frequently one bad mood can affect an entire day of work for everybody.

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for a little healthy conflict; an element of friction in the office can actually be beneficial.

For one thing, conflict provides an impetus for change; it means ideas are being challenged, and can help better ideas to reach the surface. If people have to explain themselves rather than have their ideas go unquestioned, then flimsier concepts are quickly exposed, and better ones come to the front.

The motivational aspect of overcoming a challenge can also boost productivity. People are much more likely to work harder towards a goal when they feel as though they have something to prove – whether that’s their own ability, their loyalty to a particular discipline, or just the passion to succeed whatever the task.

Dealing with conflict

Of course, it’s important to keep things civil. If you notice a shift within your team from a little healthy conflict towards negative tension, the first step to dealing with the problem is to gather the relevant parties together and acknowledge that the issue exists. By bringing it into the open, you give both sides a chance to air their grievances and share their side of the argument.

Many conflicts have a shared emotion at their heart, for example feeling overwhelmed or threatened. By defining the shared emotion, it makes it much easier for their parties to understand one another.

Finally, resolve the conflict by making a clear decision on what will be done going forward. Conflict has a habit of festering within the shadows of ambiguity. If everybody is 100% certain on how things will be changing, you remove the risk of further problems before they arise.

Giving the right amount of praise

A study by Emily Heaphy and Marcial Losada has revealed that the ideal ratio of praise-to-criticism is five or more positive comments for each negative one. Just because conflict keeps people on their toes, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t let people know when things are going well.

You can give too much praise though. By being too congratulatory of small successes, you run the risk of setting lower performance expectations.

Psychologically, when a person is praised for their ability, it leaves them less equipped to deal with adversity when they are presented with a challenge.

This lowers the bar for success and results in a negative mental association relating to the amount of effort required to garner further praise.

Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson of Columbia’s Motivation Science Centre instead suggests that a better method is to praise the methods your colleague employed, rather than praising them specifically.

Suggested compliments to empower your team are:

  • “You planned that out perfectly.”
  • “This presentation is excellent.”
  • “This document is exactly what I was looking for.”

as opposed to the more vague, less constructive:

  • “You’ve done very well.”
  • “You’re a genius!”
  • “Well done.”

What do you think? Do you feel motivated when somebody challenges your suggestion, or does it take the wind out of your sails? What is the best way to acknowledge a job well done? Let us know your thoughts in the comments, and be sure to check back for more soon.

If you’d like to read more about team flow, download our free Teams That Flow ebook or watch our animation:


Image credit: Charles Williams