“Functional Conflict” — A Business Lesson that can be Learned From Science

Sean Cornelius

I stopped taking science in grade 10. While that’s true, I haven’t stopped asking questions and being interested in many scientific topics. As I was watching a video I realized the scientific principle I was learning about had very accurate applications to business. Specifically, it made sense for hiring, onboarding, and creating project teams.

First the science:

When waves meet, two different things can happen constructive interference and destructive interference. Constructive interference is created when two waves combine and become a greater force together, while destructive interference occurs when out-of-sync waves cancel each other out.

A parallel can be drawn to members of a team. Is your team becoming stronger together? Or could they be cancelling each other out and preventing the team from succeeding?

In high school, I co-lead my school communities Relay For Life executive team. We were able to hold an event with over 700 people and we raised over $94,000. This more than doubled any other charity effort our school had ever put on. As much as I’d like to take all the credit, it was truly the team that propelled the fundraiser forward, and it’s the team that demonstrated the power of constructive interference.

When leading this group of people I experienced that an incredibly diverse team can hold productive and meaningful arguments. When we were hiring, we chose people with varied experience in clubs, teams, academics, and friend groups. This meant during our meetings we were primed to have people disagree about fundamental things in the planning process.

Before we continue I want to highlight that this is where everything can go wrong. If a conflict ready group is thrown at each other, you can see destructive interference. It will make many team members stop sharing their unique perspectives and instead get stifled by other group members. That being said, if you build a team that you properly instilled a culture of respect and collaboration into, people will be able to build off of their colleagues’ ideas. Scientific discoveries are never made within a vacuum, they are building on the backs of giants. With your team, the same thing can happen. You will collectively iron out issues and expand on ideas because each person will be able to notice different problems and come up with different solutions.

Research has established that diverse teams are more productive and this translates into positive financial results. In order to see those results, you have to be strategic in the composition and leadership of these teams to ensure constructive interference is truly taking place.

Although I’m not studying science formally, this doesn’t prevent me from taking scientific models and adapting them to a business context. It is through these connections that I, and everyone else, can further their understanding.

As you form your next team, keep in mind the value diversity of thought brings and carefully manage the groups’ interactions to ensure constructive disagreements can take place.

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