How Fostering Positive Conflict can Benefit your Startup

Rines Angel Fund
5 min readNov 22, 2023

By Nova Robbins ’25 Associate

Why Should a Business Care about Culture?

As a college student preparing to enter the professional world, I’m looking for companies with a positive and inclusive culture. Navigating this search, one thing became clear: company culture is a complex concept. Pinning down what makes up a “good” culture is subjective, as there’s no one-size-fits-all definition. At its core, a mix of shared norms and values shapes a business. More and more companies are realizing the importance of company culture,“90% of workers contemplating a job change have cited poor company culture as the culprit, compared to just 32% in workplaces with a positive culture.

Now, as I spend more time thinking about what defines a positive culture, one crucial aspect that emerges is the handling of conflicts and communication. Positive conflict plays a pivotal role in shaping a company’s culture. It’s not just about the absence of disagreements but how these disagreements are navigated and channeled towards growth.

What is Positive Conflict?

Positive conflict is a productive form of disagreement within a group. Unlike destructive conflict, which can harm relationships, productive conflict involves respectful communication when expressing diverse opinions. Part of this is also the ability for group members to feel comfortable enough within the group to speak their differing opinions.

Companies like Pixar Animation Studios have utilized positive conflict to foster creativity and innovation. Pixar displays a unique company culture focused on fostering an innovative space. However, for a company to work effectively and efficiently, it’s crucial for individuals to feel comfortable sharing their opinions. Pixar shows this sentiment by stating, “instead of hiring solitary geniuses, look instead for people who have the temperament to work with others and are not afraid of being challenged”.

Pixar has outlined three values instrumental in creating an innovative culture: regularly sharing unfinished work, eliminating obstacles while pursuing solutions, and empowering teams while meeting constraints. This approach has resulted in a collaborative environment where diverse viewpoints are celebrated. Overall this resulted in the creation of movies that have become global sensations!

Example: Navigating Team Dynamics

During my last internship as a software engineer, my twelve-member team faced a recurring conflict. Two co-workers disagreed on how the company should handle its relationship with a crucial business partner. One advocated for transparency, while the other preferred keeping information private. Instead of steering clear of conflict, our boss viewed it as an opportunity for positive disagreement.

By allowing disagreements to be heard, our boss cultivated an environment where diverse perspectives became catalysts for innovation and success. Being part of this team encouraged me to voice my opinions, even as an intern! During the business partner conflict, my teammates were able to think more critically about the full situation and work out the pros and cons of using each method. Ultimately, we adopted a more transparent communication strategy with our partner.

That said, it’s important to note that every team is unique. In my experience this past summer, our team was fully remote, with members spanning various geographical locations, ages, and experience levels. Despite these differences, a few key lessons emerged that can apply to many teams.

Enhanced Creativity and Innovation:

Conflicting ideas serve as a catalyst for innovative solutions. Groupthink is within a group of people when the desire for harmony or conformity results in irrational decision-making outcomes. In a groupthink situation, individual members set aside their own beliefs or opinions in favor of the perceived consensus within the group. This conformity can lead to poor decisions, as ideas may be unheard due to members looking to maintain group harmony. Positive conflict can help mitigate groupthink and lead to more creative and innovative solutions to group issues.

Cultivating a creative environment within a company can create a culture where positive conflict is supported because members feel included. When speaking to potential employers, here are some examples of questions that you can ask to get a sense of the company’s inclusion and thoughts on innovation: How does the company support professional development and learning, or what social/team-building activities does the company organize?

Improved Decision-Making Processes:

Positive conflict plays a pivotal role in refining ideas and proposals. The constructive debate encourages teams to evaluate options, fostering a culture where decisions are not merely made but are well-informed and thoroughly thought through. This inclusivity in decision-making enhances the overall quality of an organization’s choices.

When speaking to employers, something you can ask to get a sense of decision-making processes is, what values are most important to the company?

Strengthened Team Dynamics:

Building a positive conflict culture goes beyond encouraging open expression of opinions; it cultivates an environment of empowerment. This, in turn, leads to increased collaboration. As team members navigate conflicts constructively, they contribute to a more creative, thoughtful, and resilient team.

When talking to a potential employer, it can feel unclear how to gauge a leadership team’s viewpoints around team dynamics. Some examples of questions you can ask to get a sense of leadership dynamics are: What is the leadership style within the organization, or how does the company handle giving and receiving feedback?

Applications in the Startup World:

Cultivating positive conflict skills is important to success in a fast-paced startup environment. Unlike large corporations, startups more commonly experience a scarcity of resources and have smaller team structures that demand a heightened efficiency level. In this context, fostering an environment that encourages open communication and embraces diverse perspectives isn’t just beneficial but critical.

Strengthened team dynamics are pivotal; encouraging open communication and respecting diverse viewpoints fosters cohesive teams that navigate challenges toward achieving shared goals. Improved decision-making processes emerge as essential; creating constructive debates ensures well-informed choices, which is crucial for startups operating in uncertain markets. Start-ups are constantly evolving and redefining their business models, making it crucial that all team members feel comfortable speaking up for survival.

Enhanced creativity and innovation thrive within this environment; by valuing differing viewpoints and engaging in constructive conflicts, startups unlock novel solutions, differentiate themselves, and pioneer groundbreaking ideas that grow their success. Pixar has a start-up-like environment where innovation is the cornerstone of its success. In a startup’s fast-paced world, fostering positive conflict skills is crucial for teamwork, informed decisions, and innovative success amid resource scarcity and small teams.

Nova is a Junior from Natick, MA, pursuing a degree in Mechanical Engineering with a minor in Business Administration. She has a passion for finding applications of engineering in the startup world. Nova is excited to embark on her second semester in the Fund, where she aims to delve into the intricacies of private equity investing. Outside of the Fund, she plays an active role as President of the Entrepreneurship Club and member of Alpha Kappa Psi, the professional business fraternity. Nova looks forward to expanding her horizons, including exploring the world of angel investing, while collaborating with the exceptional individuals within the Fund.



Rines Angel Fund

We are a seed-stage venture Fund backing exceptional New England entrepreneurs.