If it’s not if you win but how you play the game, then playing – or working – with humour and an upbeat, positive attitude is surely the right way to play. Besides, these are the teams that usually win.

When people agree with me I always feel I must be wrong.

Ambrose Bierce, playwright and satirist

Multiple disciplines in the same studio, fights over what radio station to listen to, divergent perceptions over appropriate work hours, modes of dress, codes of behaviour, even what was perceived as quality of work…all of this I saw as rich and yeasty opportunity for the kinds of friction I wanted to turn into light rather than heat. The uneasiness in my stomach and the fireworks in my brain told me there was some vital connection between the abrasiveness itself and original thinking.

Jerry Hirshberg, founder and president, Nissan Design International

If you agreed with me all the time, there wouldn’t be any need for one of us. Guess which one?

Musician Neil Young, explaining to producer David Briggs why their constant arguments were crucial to his creativity

If you want innovation, you need happy warriors, upbeat people who know the right way to fight. A growing body of research suggests that conflict over ideas is good, especially for groups and organizations that do creative work. Constant argument can mean that there is a competition to develop and test as many good ideas as possible, that there is wide variation in knowledge and perspectives.

When everyone in a group always agrees, it may mean they don’t have many ideas, or it may mean that avoiding conflict is more important to them than generating and evaluating new ideas. It may even mean that people who express new ideas are ridiculed, ostracized and driven out of the group. Regardless of the reasons, lack of conflict and dissent means that the group is unlikely to express and develop many valuable new ideas. Groups-and societies-that stifle people with new, untested ideas undermine both imagination and personal freedom. As Robert F. Kennedy said, “It is not enough to allow dissent. We must demand it.” This is sound advice for any leader who wants a constant supply of new ideas. Or to paraphrase chewing-gum magnate William Wrigley Jr., “When two people in business always agree, one of them is unnecessary.”

Conflict-the good and the bad

When an idea has moved beyond infancy, but is still unproven, constructive conflict is crucial for developing and testing its value. Conflict is a sign that there is a contest for ideas in the organization, that people are developing and assessing many possibilities. Even at this stage, however, not all conflict is constructive. Arguments are crucial to creativity, but people need to learn how and when to fight. In the very earliest stages of idea generation, conflict (and the criticism it entails) is damaging when it causes ideas to be rejected before they can be developed well enough to be evaluated. Worse yet, when conflict rages, fear of ridicule or humiliation causes people to censor themselves before proposing silly or strange, but possibly useful, ideas. This is why idea generation techniques, like brainstorming, require participants to “withhold judgment” or “avoid criticism.”

Peter Skillman is a product designer and master brainstorming leader who works for Handspring, the maker of personal digital assistants. Skillman trains people not to attack others’ ideas in brainstorming groups: “If somebody says that an idea sucks, when somebody says something nasty, I ring a little bell. I make a joke out of it, but it stops them from ripping apart ideas we need to build on and think about more.”

Conflict is also destructive once the creative process has run its course, and it is time to implement an idea. Agreement is important once an idea has been developed, tested and the right path has been chosen; agreement helps assure that everyone will use the same methods, in the same way, and are working toward the same ends. If you were having a simple and proven operation like an appendectomy, you wouldn’t want an argument in the operating room about how it should be done.

Research on group effectiveness distinguishes between two types of conflict: destructive and constructive. The destructive kind is “emotional,” “interpersonal” or “relationship-based”-participants are not fighting over which ideas are best, but because they dislike each other or feel threatened by one another. Destructive conflict upsets and demoralizes people, and groups that fight this way are less effective in both creative and routine tasks. (John, K.A., “A Multi-method Examination Of the Benefits and Detriments of Intragroup Conflicts,” Administrative Science Quarterly 40, 1995).

Constructive conflict-also referred to as “task,” or “intellectual” conflict- happens when people argue over ideas rather than personality or relationship issues. This kind of conflict occurs when people “base discussion on current factual information” and “develop multiple alternatives to enrich the debate.” (Eisenhardt, K., J.L. Kahwajy, and L. Bourgeois III, “How Management Teams Can Have a Good Fight,” Harvard Business Review, July-August, 1997). These are fights about ideas, which ones are best, and why, in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

Some of the most creative groups and organizations in history were made up of people who respected each other, but fought mightily over ideas. Bob Taylor, a psychologist turned research administrator, encouraged exactly this kind of conflict, first among computer scientists at the U.S. Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency in Washington state, and later at Xerox PARC in the 1970s. (Hiltzik, M., Dealers of Lightening, Harper Business, New York, 1999). These scientists and engineers, more than any others, are responsible for the technologies that made the computer revolution possible-including the personal computer, the Internet and the laser printer.

Here is how Taylor managed meetings when these researchers met. “Each participant got an hour or so to describe his work. Then he would be thrown to the mercy of the assembled court like a flank steak to a pack of ravenous wolves. I got them to argue with each other,” Taylor recalled with unashamed glee. “These were people who cared about their work…If there were technical weak spots, they would almost always surface under these conditions…it was very, very healthy.” It was not to be personal. Impugning a man’s thinking was acceptable, but never his character. Taylor strived to create a democracy where everyone’s ideas were impartially subject to the group’s learned demolition, regardless of the proponents’ credentials or rank.” (See Hiltzik above).

Intel, the leading semiconductor company, takes this idea more seriously that any company I know. All fulltime employees are required to take a home-grown, halfday class on “constructive confrontation,” where people learn about and practise how to fight about ideas in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

It pays to be happy

There is much evidence that being upbeat rather than unhappy, or optimistic rather than pessimistic, is a personality characteristic that is stable throughout one’s life. One study that followed people over a 50-year period, for example, showed that having an upbeat personality as an adolescent was a strong predictor of job satisfaction decades later. (Staw, B.M., N.E. Bell. And J.A. Clausen, “The Dispositional Approach to Job Attitudes: A Lifetime Longitudinal Test,” Administrative Science Quarterly, 31, 1986). Hiring such upbeat people is one of the best ways to limit destructive personal attacks, and has many other benefits as well.

Humour, joking and laughter are among the main tools that effective groups use to keep people focused on facts, rather than have the situation degenerate into personal conflict. Anthropologists, psychologists and sociologists have shown that humour can help group dynamics in many ways–the irony in many jokes and funny comments helps people remember not to take life too seriously, the laughter it promotes releases tension. I once watched a bankruptcy attorney defuse tension about charging high fees to creditors (who were already owed millions of dollars by the bankrupt firm he represented) by using a stream of tasteful lawyer jokes. Humour can be damaging when it is used against people who are different, but can be constructive when used to raise sensitive issues and deliver serious messages in less threatening ways, which is especially important for promoting a contest between opposing ideas or choices.

A study of conflict in top-management teams at high-technology firms found that the most effective groups consistently used humour, telling lots of jokes during meetings and pulling pranks like decorating the office with plastic flamingos. As the researchers put it: “Speakers can say in jest things that might otherwise give offence, because the message is simultaneously serious and not serious. The recipient is allowed to save face by receiving the serious message while appearing not to do so. The result is communication of difficult information in a more tactful and less personally threatening way.” (Eisenhardt et al, Harvard Business Review).

Humour is one of many ways to make people happy. The list is endless: Give them interesting work, treat them with respect, pay them a lot, give them free food, and so on.

Regardless of how you make your company a happy place, there is a huge amount of literature on the advantages of positive emotion, especially for creative tasks. These studies have examined the differences between happy and unhappy, optimistic and pessimistic people; people who have a positive effect versus a negative one; happiness versus sadness, and so on. No matter what you call it, there is strong evidence that travelling through life in a good mood is a good thing, especially if you want to be creative.

Many experiments show that when people are put into a good mood, say, by giving them candy or showing them a funny movie, they will be more creative. For example, they are better at inventing diverse and unusual ways for getting a candle to burn without dripping, or at finding more obscure and remote associations between words and ideas. People in good moods are “more cognitively flexible-more able to make associations, to see dimensions, and to see potential relationships among stimuli-than are persons in a neutral state.” In other words, they generate more varied ideas and combinations of those ideas, which are crucial aspects of creative work.

…And optimistic

Research on the link between optimism and pessimism is even more pertinent to how creative work unfolds in real organizations. Martin Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has shown that optimists tend to view setbacks as temporary, as not their fault, and as something that won’t pervade every aspect of life. In contrast, pessimists have a terrible time with failure, blaming themselves, believing that a single failure means they will fail from then on, that it will pervade every aspect of their lives.

Innovative companies generate many unsuccessful ideas. Consider the example of Skyline, a group of toy designers at IDEO Product Development in Palo Alto, California. Skyline keeps close tabs on its ideas because it sells and licenses concepts for toys that are made and marketed by big companies like Mattel. Brendan Boyle, founder and head of Skyline, said that in 1998, the group (which had fewer than 10 employees) generated about 4,000 ideas for new toys. Of these 4,000 ideas, 230 were thought to be promising enough to develop into a nice drawing or working prototype. Of these 230, 12 were ultimately sold. This “yield” rate is only about one-third of one per cent of total ideas, and five per cent of ideas that were thought to have potential. As Boyle says, “You can’t get any good new ideas without having a lot of dumb, lousy and crazy ones. Nobody in my business is very good at guessing which are a waste of time and which will be the next Furby.”

People who do such work need to be optimistic, for it inoculates them against the loss of energy an effort that follows each failure. People in innovative companies can’t view dead ends, errors and failures as reasons to give up, or they will never develop the few successful ideas that ultimately result from this potentially disheartening process. People who are successful in creative work, and are involved in other kinds of tasks with high failure rates, might need to be more than just optimistic. To keep moving forward, and to maintain their mental health, they might benefit by deluding themselves about the probability of success. They might be-and perhaps ought to be-prone to overestimating their chances of success, to deluding themselves into believing that things are and will be better than the evidence suggests at the time.

A study that compared how managers in large organizations and entrepreneurs made decisions found that the entrepreneurs were much more likely to be overconfident in their decisions. Overconfidence may cause problems if it means that firms continue pursuing ideas long after they have proven to be failures. But having more confidence than is warranted by the objective evidence has compensating virtues. Entrepreneurs-and people who do other innovative work-who overestimate their odds of success may work harder and be better at convincing others to help them succeed, which may increase the-albeit low-chances that any single new idea or company will succeed. An added benefit of such “self-enhancing illusions” is that people who consistently fool themselves into believing that things are wonderful enjoy superior physical and mental health compared with their more realistic and morose colleagues. (Taylor, S.E., Positive Illusions, Basic Books, New York, 1989).

Emotions are contagious

I don’t want to leave you with the impression that negative, grumpy or nasty people have no role to play in companies. You might hire a few grumpy people because there is evidence that they are less likely to take risks than upbeat people, and better at finding things wrong with ideas. One study — a simulated decision about whether or not to race a car given a substantial risk that the engine would fail – found that MBAs and engineers with less upbeat personalities were better at unearthing negative information and took fewer risks. (Roberts, D.R. “The Influence of Emotional State on Decision Making Under Risk,” Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation, Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, 1993). This decision had elements of realism because the students used actual data about the link between outside temperature and engine failure that NASA administrators used in their ill-fated decision to launch the Challenger space shuttle. So, in high-risk situations, a few negative people can be especially valuable.

Yet you must be careful before hiring grouchy people. Much research suggests that emotions are contagious, that negative feelings can spread like a disease in a company. (Hatfield, E., J.T. Cacioppo, and R.L. Rapson, Emotional Contagion, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England). One solution to this dilemma is to hire a few grumpy people, but keep them away from everyone else in the company most of the time. I got this idea from a company that had a grumpy engineer who was sometimes nasty and insensitive, but renowned for his ability to uncover errors and problems that others overlooked. Even though everyone else in his building worked in cubicles, they gave him a private office with a door, and brought him out mostly when errors and mistakes needed to be detected. Then, he went back in isolation! Other executives have told me about at least another half-dozen or so “local grumps” and “resident critics” who are given-or elect to take-a work area that is isolated from others in their company.

So, there you have it. If you want to have a creative workplace, find some happy people and teach them how to fight!