Conflict = Thinking, from Margaret Heffernan

At Converge, we think a lot about how networks and organizations can learn to generate productive tension, rather than shut down in the face of disagreement. When teams and groups master the ability to harness creative abrasion, the result is smarter strategies, better decisions, stronger relationships, and higher morale. In short, greater positive impact.

As Margaret Heffernan explains in this TED Global talk, good disagreement is central to progress. She illustrates how the best partners aren’t echo chambers — and how great research teams, relationships, and businesses allow people to deeply disagree.

Margaret HeffernanSo what does that kind of constructive conflict require? Well, first of all, it requires that we find people who are very different from ourselves. That means we have to resist the neurobiological drive, which means that we really prefer people mostly like ourselves, and it means we have to seek out people with different backgrounds, different disciplines, different ways of thinking and different experience, and find ways to engage with them. That requires a lot of patience and a lot of energy.

And the more I’ve thought about this, the more I think, really, that that’s a kind of love. Because you simply won’t commit that kind of energy and time if you don’t really care. And it also means that we have to be prepared to change our minds.

So it’s one thing to do that in a one-to-one relationship. But it strikes me that the biggest problems we face, many of the biggest disasters that we’ve experienced, mostly haven’t come from individuals, they’ve come from organizations, some of them bigger than countries, many of them capable of affecting hundreds, thousands, even millions of lives.

So how do organizations think? Well, for the most part, they don’t. And that isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s really because they can’t. And they can’t because the people inside of them are too afraid of conflict.

In surveys of European and American executives, fully 85 percent of them acknowledged that they had issues or concerns at work that they were afraid to raise. Afraid of the conflict that that would provoke, afraid to get embroiled in arguments that they did not know how to manage, and felt that they were bound to lose.

Eighty-five percent is a really big number. It means that organizations can’t think together. And it means that people like many of us, who have run organizations, and gone out of our way to try to find the very best people we can, mostly fail to get the best out of them.

So how do we develop the skills that we need? Because it does take skill and practice, too. If we aren’t going to be afraid of conflict, we have to see it as thinking, and then we have to get really good at it. I think we need to be teaching these skills to kids and adults at every stage of their development, if we want to have thinking organizations and a thinking society.

The fact is that most of the biggest catastrophes that we’ve witnessed rarely come from information that is secret or hidden. It comes from information that is freely available and out there, but that we are willfully blind to, because we can’t handle, don’t want to handle, the conflict that it provokes. But when we dare to break that silence, or when we dare to see, and we create conflict, we enable ourselves and the people around us to do our very best thinking.

Open information is fantastic, open networks are essential. But the truth won’t set us free until we develop the skills and the habit and the talent and the moral courage to use it. Openness isn’t the end. It’s the beginning.

 

Margaret Heffernan, Dare to DisagreeTED Global, June 2012