Fear Of Conflict?
Not long ago, I gave a speech at a company that had been recently acquired and since gone from 300 employees to 1,400.
Rapid changes are hard for any organization, but when I asked these leaders what their biggest challenge was they didn’t say “scaling our tech infrastructure” or “hiring good people fast enough” or “integrating with our parent company.”
They were worried about how many damn fights their people were having. The company had “a culture of arguing,” they said — starting at the top — and, given the group’s ballooning size and new ownership, they were worried those patterns of behavior weren’t sustainable or productive.
I told them that arguing could be a very good thing — perhaps the key to their success — if they could train people to do it in a healthy way.
Research tells us that cognitive diversity makes a group smarter. Two heads are, indeed, better than one, and many heads are even better, especially when everyone is willing to share their expertise and opinions.
Studies also show that most mergers and acquisitions don’t fail because of conflict. They fail from the “organizational silence” that stems from the fear of conflict. This is the same reason that, if you’re looking for signs that a romantic couple is about to split, “not talking” is a better leading indicator than “fighting a lot.”
While diverse thinking and disagreements can be uncomfortable, they are more likely to lead partners or a team to make progress, innovate, and come up with breakthrough solutions than consensus and “nice” conversations in which people hold back what they think.
In theory this means that a group such as, say, the U.S. Congress, ought to be pretty good at solving problems. The hundred members of the U.S. Senate come from 50 different states and several generations and should thus have a variety of viewpoints. (Perhaps they still don’t have enough variety, but we’ll leave that discussion for another day.) And boy do they argue. But the way they argue is rife with intellectual dishonesty. And the “rules” that govern their debates, especially on television, are ineffective at encouraging productive debate.
Unfortunately, most of the rest of us fall into similar pitfalls. We get sucked into trying to “win”— so we look good or don’t make the group we represent look bad — which leads us to ignore logic and evidence that go against our original beliefs. And so we fight without making much progress.
We can change this dynamic, moving toward more effective discourse (exchanging diverse ideas) and debate (arguing honestly for and against the merits of those ideas), by training people to adopt the right habits. Here’s how:
Remember we’re all on the same team. Just about all debates fall into one of three categories: The kind where the goal is to persuade people you’re right; the kind where the goal is to look better than your opponent; and the kind where the goal is to find better solutions together. The third is the one that helps us get the most out of a group’s cognitive diversity. To steer people in that direction, set the stage by kicking off the discussion with a shared goal, a spirit of inquiry, and emphasis that everyone is on the same team.
Offer these reminders:
Published By: Bellaland, Harvard Business Review | Shane Snow
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