When I was in University, I learned a lot about myself.
For instance, for a person who shies away from conflict at all costs, I sure liked it a lot when it came to ideas. While everyone else would stay silent in debates, I would argue to the death. Even though it’s not typical of me, it just seemed that somebody had to. I mean we’re not sheep.
Did you hear about women staying silent in meetings so that men could not interrupt them? Sadly, not just women, but people in general do this: they hold back for fear of saying the wrong thing, being perceived as a nay-sayer, or just because they don’t like conflict. I mean, who does?
The problem in this scenario is: There could be no progress without conflict. With conflict comes creative thinking, innovation, change. If you stay silent long enough, you might as well become a —
Sure, there is the bad kind of conflict — nobody would invite it in their office or during their lunch break or from their boss. But that’s generally the kind where someone is arguing just to argue. This is completely different from disagreeing with a point. And as long as nobody takes it personally, a disagreement can kick off a discussion.
Staying silent is just another problem in organizations that needs to be given top priority. Especially when it turns into a gender issue. And it’s not always driven by fear either. Sometimes people will agree because of bad politics, sheer laziness, or even blind faith.
There’s a term in Social Psychology related to this; every team encounters it sooner or later — when you’re in the meeting room, you are a team. You know it as ‘groupthink’. It’s when members of a team agree on a decision, whether it’s the right decision or not. For example, the poor CEO below can’t get any counter-arguments from his team because they would agree with anything, whatever the reason. (Maybe to leave early?)
According to research, this process has lead to many dysfunctional and irrational decisions throughout history. A few would be:
- The Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986 — the explosion was caused by the hardware failure of a solid rocket booster (SRB) o-ring, however, NASA was warned about abnormally cold weather the previous day, and because they had postponed once, they were reluctant to do it again. Pressured by NASA, the engineers agreed to proceed as planned.
- The 2008 financial crisis — Wall Street CEOs, investors, bankers and homeowners all believed that the credit system was working, even though accountants and economists voiced their concerns. The former groups of people held the false belief that nothing could go wrong, but if history is any indication, that’s exactly when it does (i.e. Titanic).
- The attack on Pearl Harbor — many of the senior officers did not take the warnings seriously because they thought the Japanese would never dare attack U.S. soldiers, that a war with the States would be futile.
And so on. While not as serious as a mistake of war, a faulty decision made in a board room meeting could result in disaster for any company. If the people on top weren’t so quick to judge without backing it up, the middle people would not feel the pressure to comply, and these mistakes would not be present.
So, it seems, it all depends on management.
You’re the manager, or CEO, or whoever you are, you threw the meeting, so you’re in charge. Take matters in your hands and make this meeting count. If your coworkers will not argue, then encourage them.
In case you think all of this is mumbo-jumbo, I’m going to point you towards a video I watched on TED.com, which completely threw me.
It’s called Dare to Disagree and this is the summary:
Most people instinctively avoid conflict, but as Margaret Heffernan shows us, good disagreement is central to progress. She illustrates (sometimes counterintuitively) how the best partners aren’t echo chambers — and how great research teams, relationships and businesses allow people to deeply disagree.
In her speech, Margaret Heffernan, gives a great example of a good team —Dr. Alice Stewart and a statistician called George Neale. Back in the 1950s, Alice discovered that X-raying pregnant women caused cancer in their children, and she fought to spread awareness (which took 50 years!).
Now, Alice and George were great collaborators because they were completely different. Whatever Alice thought, George disagreed with, and vice versa. But they saw it as a good thing — as a breeding ground for thinking. They knew that arguing with each other made their ideas more informed, more creative, and in the end, more valuable.
And when George didn’t argue about her cancer findings, Alice knew she was right. Isn’t that great? Having a compass telling you you’re on the right track? This could be your colleague, your employee, your wife…
Whoever it is, it’s important to have a person who challenges you.
In terms of teams, project managers can ensure that there’s an open-argue or a ‘must-argue’ policy. You can call it a challenge — people love challenges. It’s up to you to encourage the right behaviors. Make debating a game. Make it fun. Make it a part of the company culture. You hear the buzz phrase ‘company culture’ everywhere, and for a good reason. Companies with a healthy culture produce happy relationships and happy employees.
These days everything’s up in the air and there’s a rug underneath your feet, waiting to be pulled, so do something about it. Without risk there’s no reward. And without conflict, there’s no progress.