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Managing Conflict Constructively at Work

Conflict in the workplace (or anywhere else for that matter) can easily create significant issues with inter & intra-personal relationships.  Nothing new there then. We all feel the stress, anxiety and any number of negative psychological affects after a disagreement. Some see conflict as something to be avoided at all costs. Perhaps just to maintain an equilibrium and to give others (and the line manager) an easier life.

However isn’t conflict a fact of life when groups of people come together with different goals and aspirations. Does conflict have to always be a negative thing? Perhaps the perception of conflict and how the problem is ultimately resolved is how we ought to look at it. If we approach it from a non-judgemental task focussed way it may just shed some light on how to help produce more positive outcomes and culture change.

Clearly, dysfunctional conflict is a bad thing. No good can come from it. Dysfunctional conflict damages relationships, damages self-esteem, can result in verbal threats or even sadly violence.  This dysfunctional conflict serves no purpose and is often a way to just vent any number of emotions such as anger and frustration. We all have levels of what we consider to be an acceptable degree of conflict, though if we are in a relationship or a workplace where there is too much conflict we might consider leaving. Thus potentially creating more stress and a disruption to life and for those around you.

Solving Conflict Positively – Constructive Controversy

Looking on the bright side however, conflict that is perceived as being functional can create an environment and driver behind achieve organisational change.  Can create a learning environment as we reflect on our own behaviour and our decisions as they are challenged constructively by groups, co-workers or partners. One way to begin to look at functional conflict is the process of Constructive Controversy. Constructive Controversy is a powerful technique for managing and resolving conflict. Its objective is to test a proposed solution by subjecting it to a clash of ideas and an active task focussed problem solving process. Thus either showing the idea to be either wrong, you can prove it, or improve on it. Using Constructive Controversy techniques, your confidence in the solution chosen and subsequent decision making improves as you reach a better understanding of all the factors involved.

Constructive Controversy is a positive and productive problem-solving approach developed primarily by David Johnson a Social Psychologist. Johnson began a program of teaching elementary, secondary, and university students to be “peacemakers” in the sense of knowing how to engage in negotiations and the instigate mediation of peer conflicts. This model is well researched and evidenced based, and it’s recognised as one of the leading models for developing robust and creative solutions to problems and managing conflict. According to David Johnson the technique draws on five key assumptions

  1. We tend to adopt an initial perspective of the problem based on our personal experiences and perceptions.
  2. The process of persuading others to agree with us strengthens our belief that we are right.
  3. When confronted with competing viewpoints, we begin to self-doubt our rationale.
  4. This doubt causes us to seek more information and build a better perspective, because we want to be confident with our choice.
  5. This search for a fuller perspective leads to better overall decision making.

Putting Constructive Controversy into Practice

To put these assumptions into a structured problem solving process the following steps may help you to manage a situation in a team with confidence.

  1. Brainstorm ideas about the issue and the problem at hand. (please observe agreed boundaries of brainstorming as we are trying to judge the best solution to the problem not attack other people)
  2. Form teams to look at all the different alternatives that have been generated
  3. Each team engage in Constructive Controversy i.e. teams present their ideas to begin convincing the wider group that their choice is the most productive
  4. The other teams then have to opportunity to argue constructively the pros and cons of the suggestions with the emphasis upon critical and logical thought process.
  5. Following the process of presenting and counter presenting of the problem solving choices, teams are asked to argue for another solutions they originally argued against.
  6. A decision is then made from the most convincing evidenced based solution.

NB this is just a potted version of the process of constructive controversy. Please refer to the work by Johnson & Johnson for the full model and its implementation.

Implementing Controversial Controversy

The key to effective decision-making is then through the constructive controversy model.  Decisions involve controversy according to the recent studies from Johnson & F. Johnson, 2007 & 2017.  In making decisions, alternative courses of action are suggested and considered.  Then an agreement can be reached with some alternatives that can constitutes the most effective in solving the problem.

There are generally two issues in making effective decisions. Firstly, too few alternatives are suggested. At times members of the group quickly agree the first reasonable alternative suggested without considering any other of the alternatives.  Secondly, only some of the alternatives being considered are properly discussed.  These problems can be avoided if the members of the team or group can engage in a constructive controversy. Needless to say, problems will arise if only one person’s ideas or conclusions, theories, and opinions are out of kilter with those of another members of the group. We need two (or more) people to seek to reach an agreement that reflects their best reasoned judgment of the situation at hand. (Johnson & R. Johnson, 2007, 2015).

Constructive Controversy then is a very effective method for developing agreed and negotiated solutions to problems. However, this model has to be used within the right setting and to ensure that participants have the skills to manage this type of structured functional conflict.


The key here is to incorporate and understand different perspectives in a non-judgemental manner to gain a better understanding of the problem as a whole. As a result the solution arrived at is likely to be improved and built upon time after time. Constructive Controversy can a time-consuming & a highly structured process. However, when used to tackle significant problems and conflict in the work place in an open minded and functional way, with appropriate rules and boundaries the benefits of using constructive controversy, the method can lead to open and positive problem solving in any organisation or in your personal life.

Decision making involves conflict among alternative courses of action. This is primarily a conflict among ideas, goals and aspirations of team/group members that is a controversy. Moreover in order to manage a controversy constructively, all alternative course of action needs to be strongly advocated and properly reviewed. Therefore allowing for good decisions to be made.  It is through the controversy process that high-quality decisions tend to be made. Hopefully then utilising this model will help to make conflict at work productive and perhaps a more enjoyable process.


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Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. (2007). Creative controversy: Academic conflict in the classroom (4th Ed.). Edina, MN: Interaction Book Company.

Johnson, D. W. (2015). Constructive controversy: Theory, research, and practice. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, F. P. (2017). Joining together: Group theory and research (13th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.