When Creative Conflict is A Good Thing

Sep 28 2010 by Rick Sloboda | 18 Comments

When Creative Conflict is A Good Thing

During your career as a web professional, whether you’re a designer, developer or copywriter, you’re bound to encounter creative differences either within your team, or between you and a client. These situations can be emotionally taxing, but if you have a better understanding of how to work through them and even learn and grow from them, conflicts can actually make you better at your job.

Here are some tips on getting the most out of your conflict, and when it’s best for everyone to just throw in the proverbial towel.

Good Conflict/Bad Conflict

Conflict happens when two or more contradictory perspectives haven’t been agreed on, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, when handled well, conflict forces us to be creative problem-solvers, to avoid mistakes, and to learn how to benefit from our differences, all while challenging us to broaden our skills.

Conflict gets ugly when it affects workflow, gets personal, leads to more conflict, and harms working relationships. Fortunately, there are things you can do to prevent disagreements from taking you down the wrong path, starting with learning about how different people deal with conflict.

Types of Conflict Behavior

Understanding the types of behavior that occur during conflict, and recognizing which apply to you and your peers, can help you discover how to get the most out of it.

The types of conflict behavior are:

  1. Competing: you have a high concern for personal goals and low concern for relationships.
  2. Collaborative: you’re interested in a mutually satisfactory solution.
  3. Compromising: you’re willing to give something up if they are.
  4. Avoiding: you delay and ignore the conflict, hoping it will resolve itself.
  5. Accommodating: you’re willing to make a sacrifice to avoid confrontation.

Depending on the way you and your team deal with conflict with respect to the above behaviors, you could either find yourselves at a creative stand-still, or you could come out of the conflict better than if there was none at all.

A study documented in Creativity and Innovation Management found that certain types of conflict behavior, specifically the confrontational variety, yield better results in terms of creative output. Researchers Petra Badke-Schaub, Gabriela Goldschmidt and Martijn Meyer observed video footage of design teams during idea generation. They then compared the conflict behavior styles of each team to their creative output.

The researchers found that high-scoring groups in the areas of innovation and functionality were more prone to competing and compromising, and low-rated groups were more collaborative. The findings also showed that more ideas were generated in the higher-scoring groups, while more repetition of ideas occurred in the low-scoring groups. The researchers concluded that creative performance in teams is not achieved mainly by agreement, but needs cognitive confrontation.

In other words, don’t be afraid to challenge the ideas of people on your team (respectfully), the results are often favorable, while being too agreeable for the purpose of avoiding confrontation can produce lackluster results.

Constructive Team Conflict

What’s the best way to deal with conflict on your team? There are many methods out there, but perhaps the most applicable to conflict on a creative team, is the Conflict Resolution Network’s Creative Response kit.

Creative Response kit

One of the Network’s 12 conflict resolution skills, the Creative Response approach aims to shift the focus from the negativity of the conflict to the possibilities created by it. They suggest adopting an attitude of "discovery" rather than "perfection."

The perfectionist often approaches a conflicting creative idea with negative judgments, high emphasis on what is considered "right" and "wrong," and a strong aversion to risk-taking due to the fear of making mistakes. This approach, argues the Network, produces winners and losers.

The "discovery" approach sees conflict as an opportunity for learning and encourages exploration of ideas that may be met with opposition at first, but could lead to a new and better approach. Taking a discovery-type attitude in conflict involves taking more risks, experimenting, and creates winners and learners, rather than winners and losers. This approach also encourages members of a team to take chances and become more motivated to present innovative ideas.

Client Conflicts

Even if you’re the best web designer, web developer, or web copywriter, chances are your clients aren’t always going to be pleased with your work. As a creative web professional, you may already be accustomed to the practice of not taking critical client feedback personally, but when the feedback gets unnecessarily abusive, you may want to re-evaluate whether the emotional casualties are worth the paycheck, or if you should decide to part ways.

One way to help prevent conflict from happening is to ensure that expectations are clearly communicated up front. If a client seems very easygoing at first, providing little or no direction to your project, be wary. Having creative freedom is usually a good thing, but lack of direction could also mean that your client isn’t aware of what they want, and intend to use you, and likely endless revisions, to figure it out.

Having a thorough preliminary research and interviewing process helps you get a clear understanding of the client’s wants and needs. Combining that with a clearly worded agreement that outlines everyone’s expectations and responsibilities gives you something to lean on should one party not hold up their end of the bargain. The agreement can also outline exact revision limits and what protocol to follow in the event of creative differences.

How to Part Ways Amicably

If many attempts to land on the same page have left you fruitless, or if you simply cannot take any further abuse from an unruly client (the client isn’t always right), you may decide that it’s best for everyone if you part ways. If they haven’t fired you already, firing your client is certainly not unheard of.

How do you fire a client without tarnishing your name? Taking an honest approach is always admirable. No matter how colorful your client may get with their language during conflict, you can be confident that you’re taking the high road by not reciprocating. If you’re comfortable enough to do so, simply inform them that you’ve done the best you can with what you’ve been given, and that perhaps your style is not in line with what they’re looking for. Hopefully, if you’ve put in some work already, you’ll be able to salvage some of their deposit.

If you don’t feel like the straight-up approach would turn out well for whatever reason, or if you’re just not comfortable with it, Freelance Switch has some creative ideas for firing your client:

  • Hike your prices: If you announce that you are raising your prices, which is not uncommon, your client might decide to take their business elsewhere.
  • Fill your schedule: Let the client know that your schedule is full for the time being and refer them to someone else (who is preferably more in line with the client’s style.)
  • Stick to your guns: If all expectations have been communicated and the client is delinquent on any of the responsibilities on their end, simply stick to the agreement and don’t provide further work until requirements are met.
  • It’s not you, it’s me: Let the client know that something in your personal life is preventing you from meeting their needs and that they should find an alternative.
  • Just say no: When all else fails, refer back to good old, diplomatic honesty.

Moving Forward With a Positive Attitude

Every conflict, the good and bad, teaches us something about ourselves, about how we want to work, and who we want to work with. As you get more financially secure in your career, you’ll have an easier time picking and choosing the types of teams and clients you want to work with. Until then, approaching every conflict as an opportunity to learn, along with perhaps growing thicker skin, makes you a winner in the long run.

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About the Author

Rick Sloboda is a Senior Web Copywriter at Webcopyplus. Their company’s client list includes AT&T and Scotia Bank. He advocates clear, concise and objective website content that promotes readability and usability, and conducts web content studies with organizations in Europe and the U.S., including Yale University. Follow him on Twitter @Webcopyplus.

18 Comments

Giacomo Colddesign

September 28th, 2010

Great article… Thanks for sharing…

Adam Haynes

September 28th, 2010

Nice posting Rick. Thanks!!!

Gabriele Maidecchi

September 28th, 2010

I value conflict in the creative process of developing a new product or service. I think, if well managed, a conflict is an invaluable way to progress to the “next” level of your vision.
I strongly believe innovation isn’t the work of a group, not initially at least. An individual has a vision, something revolutionary, it’s his duty to express such vision, which will be met with surprise, shock, opposition by most. Conflict is created to shape the vision into a tangible idea. This doesn’t mean you have to be a monolith in your beliefs and ideas, being open to suggestions is a key element to manage a successful conflict. The group-thinking is a late event, valuable but useless without a good, visionary idea to start with.

Rick Sloboda

September 28th, 2010

@Gabriele Excellent points! There are studies that support your views. In fact, a Texas A&M University study concluded if you’re looking for unique solutions, or want to come up with many ideas, having people first work on their own produces stronger results.

They suggested it’s beneficial to have copywriters, designers, developers and others share their respective ideas AFTER they’ve had adequate time to work independently.

John G

September 28th, 2010

Thanks for this. I could have used some of these tips recently. I’m going to investigate the resources in this article and plan for the inevitable time when these techniques will become necessary again.

Josh

September 28th, 2010

Conflict generally helps refine a project. Of course, going to too far will kill it.

Rich Peter

September 28th, 2010

Positive conflict!:)

Catalina

September 28th, 2010

Conflict is good. The way you handle it can turn everything upside down. It’s good to sort out really important things first and agree with your client on those before you even anticipate having some difficulties about specific things you discover along the way.

At the same time though, conflict an make you loose the connection that you used to have with your client. And that is damaging – for the project and for the relationship as well.

Boxie Designer

September 28th, 2010

I actually agree with this article, thanks for posting!

Rick Sloboda

September 28th, 2010

@Catalina Indeed, outlining the scope of work and expectations is key to setting a foundation.

In terms of conflict being damaging, I believe a lot of it depends on attitude and approach. For instance, our copywriters met with an agency last week, and I felt the sitemap they created for the client was flawed. So I told the project manager, “I have some thoughts on the sitemap, if you don’t mind.” He opened the door to discussion, I respectfully challenged them, and changes were made.

I think if you’re tactful, and demonstrate you have the project’s best interest at heart, most people are open to a healthy, productive debate.

When egos get in the way, then you have a problem.

OfficeCavalry

September 29th, 2010

Creative conflict is a good thing, I would rather have two people fighting over two good ideas, than two people struggling to think of just one good idea.

Great Post!

Bryan McAnulty

September 29th, 2010

Conflict within teams allows for more innovation by challenging each other and building ideas. Looking at every option drives innovation where sticking with one set path or compromising creates a bland and stagnant result. I completely agree that it is important to have a “discovery” related attitude rather than that of a perfectionist.

I have dealt with each of these types of conflict behavior when it comes to clients. My suggestion is to make sure you do your best to recognize which type of behavior you are dealing with when a conflict arises, and look at things from the client’s point of view in order to come to a resolution.

Tixy

September 29th, 2010

I hate conflicts and many time use “Just say no” option :( … Well, it seems I need to work more on my selfconfidence…

Gregor McKelvie

September 29th, 2010

I think a lot of it comes down to respect. Many people, colleagues, managers, etc. don’t respect the opinion of others or fail to see that the person on the other side of the argument is indeed a unique person with their own experiences, thoughts, insights and opinions.

If people listened more, I think it would be easier to empathise with and respect others.

Steve

September 29th, 2010

Great article! Im not using it for creative differences with a client though :) Me from a user experience background, my manager from an IT background, both working on an ecommerce site and our opinions on site direction are never the same and he just does not concede a point at all. “How to part ways amicably” will be used when I do find a new role in the coming weeks ;)

Craig

September 30th, 2010

Great post, I like the heading of Conflict Resolution Network website ‘Background – Conflict is the stuff of life’ so true!, definitely if you have an open attitude and can learn from conflict, the good and the bad, it will help when the inevitable next confrontation comes along :-)

Calgary

October 2nd, 2010

Usually when we take on a new client, we usually meet with them a few times to determine whether its a good match… eHarmony for business I suppose :-) Regardless of the contract amount, if its not a good fit it always seems to not be an exciting project. I think I’m just old school… you can either just ‘work’ for a living or ‘enjoy’ your work :-)

Miguel

November 17th, 2010

Conflict is a good thing if handled well. Put a writer, programmer and designer in a room, and get them to debate. A writer can learn from the designer, and vise versa. Great article!

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