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. Continue reading