Can Conflict Improve Team Creativity?

employees staring each other down
Topic(s): creativity, job performance
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology 
Article: Task conflict and team creativity: A question of how much and when
Authors: J.L. Farh, C. Lee, C.I. Farh
Reviewed by: Bobby Bullock

The concept of team creativity has become more and more salient in recent years due to an increasing reliance on teams to enhance an organization’s competitiveness. Team creativity is defined as the creation of new and helpful ideas concerning services, procedures, products, and processes by a team of individuals. So while we all want our teams to be creative, what environmental factors will encourage this? Searching for such factors, the researchers of this study (Farh, Lee, & Farh, 2010) set out to examine the roles that task conflict (or conflict about policies, procedures, decisions, interpretation of facts, and the distribution of resources) and the phase of a project team’s lifecycle (e.g., team formation, mid-point, and project deadline) have in determining team creativity.


Consistent with previous findings, the researchers found that there is a curvilinear relationship between task conflict and team creativity, meaning that when task conflict was extremely low or extremely high, team creativity was at its lowest; moderate amounts of task conflict were linked with the highest amounts of team creativity. This supports the ‘Goldilocksian’ idea that too much disagreement and team members may become frustrated or lose sight of the group’s main goal, while too little disagreement could lead to groupthink and complacency. However, ‘just the right’ amount of disagreement can expose members to new ideas and stimulate divergent thinking.

The researchers also found that project team lifecycle interacted with task conflict to produce creative outcomes. Their findings indicate that the curvilinear relationship was only present at the early phase of a team’s lifecycle. This means that, as project teams near their deadline, task conflict will cease to produce creative solutions. They theorized that this is due to a team’s inability to change course or incorporate new ideas when they are nearing deadlines.


The implications to this research are valuable for any organization that wishes to get the most from their project teams:

  • Managers or team leaders should not discourage conflict based on ideas, decisions, etc.  In fact, if they encourage some level of task conflict, they can expect their teams to come up with more creative solutions through the dissemination of more ideas and divergent thinking.
  • Task conflict should be embraced particularly at the early phases of a team project, when members are defining objectives and planning a course of to attain those objectives.
  • According to the researchers, managers should also “build a psychologically safe team climate early on in the project, so that team members feel safe to bring up ideas that may be counter to the majority opinion.”

With all this said, it’s important for managers to keep in mind that too much task conflict and too many arguments can shift a team towards relationship conflicts, frustration, and lack of productivity.


Farh, J.-L., Lee, C., & Farh, C. I. C. (2010). Task conflict and team creativity: A question of how much and when. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(6), 1173–1180.