Dare to Disagree

“A fantastic model of collaboration: thinking partners who aren’t echo chambers.” (Margaret Heffernan)

Recently I had the pleasure of watching a TED talk by Margaret Heffernan on the power and essential nature of constructive conflict.  Many people instinctively avoid conflict but as Margaret so eloquently argues good disagreement is central to progress.  She illustrates how the best partnerships aren’t ‘echo chambers’ of agreement — rather great teams, relationships and businesses allow and encourage people to deeply disagree and engage in healthy yet robust debate.

Margaret shares the inspiring story of Alice Stewart, a Physician in the 1950’s who led the way in childhood cancer research.  Alice enjoyed an invaluable working relationship with statistician George Kneale who considered his role to work hard to disprove Alice’s theories.  His logic – in his efforts to disprove her thinking and data he could in fact best support her efforts to find the truth.  Alice and George recognised the important contribution disagreement and debate play in striving to expose the truth and getting to the heart of issues.  They recognised that to solve big problems they needed to bring out their best thinking that would yield the greatest return.  To do that they knew they needed to be united in their goal while allowing conflict in their thinking.

Margaret suggests that in order to create thinking organizations and thinking societies we must teach people to have the courage to stand up and express their views with confidence and conviction.  Of course we must also teach people to be open minded and flexible, but not at the expense of their ability to share honest insight and challenge those things that they are able to see from a different viewpoint.  The need to overcome fear of conflict to enable better decision making is true of so many teams I work with and observe.   It is critical to our ability to achieve the best possible outcomes that we learn to be more afraid of silence than conflict.

Only through people engaging in constructive conflict can we challenge conventional wisdom, tap into creativity and reach the best possible outcomes.  There is no doubt that going head to head with an open mind forces people to think more deeply and consider alternative perspectives.  In practice however this takes more than simply requiring people to challenge one another.  Many of us are hesitant to raise concerns and challenge points of view because we fear conflict.  For others their fear of conflicts leads to heated arguments that damage relationships and close minds.  Constructive conflict requires that we inspire and support people to have courage and step past their fears.  Equally we must support people to develop and use the emotional intelligence and communication skills that enable conflict that leads to positive outcomes.

A central argument Margaret presents resonated particularly strongly with me ‘openness alone can’t drive change’ … ‘openness isn’t the end, it’s the beginning’ …. ‘the truth won’t set us free until we have the courage to use it.’


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