What is the difference between an argument and a thoughtful disagreement?
You might think that it’s the decibels of the voices or the intellectual value of the topic, but underneath all else, the participants’ motivation is what ultimately distinguishes a dispute from a quest for knowledge. When the goal is to identify the best course of action, policy, or tactic, opposing viewpoints and a healthy debate can lead to unconsidered possibilities.
This is hardly a new idea. Even Aristotle’s Rhetoric is founded on the idea of discourse as the route to identifying truth, and it’s easy to see why. From the dog park to the preschool playground, we are surrounded by conflict. The sheer number of idioms to describe conflict is evidence of its pervasiveness: “all bark, no bite,” “is this your hill to die on?,” “them’s fighting words,” “argue with a fence post,” “fight fire with fire”… the list seems infinite.
As a social mammal, conflict is intrinsic to our biology.
Competition for food, shelter, or mates is a natural part of our existence, but according to Science Magazine, we “have evolved behaviors to avoid the detrimental effects of excessive intraspecies violence” for the most part. Maybe the author of that article hasn’t been to my family reunion (or a high school parking lot) recently, but it is safe to say that we have developed options in how to handle conflict. You can fight, you can acquiesce, you can be a non-conformist, you can leave, you can be passive-aggressive, you can enlist logic with data and evidence until you’re blue in the face, but you can’t avoid conflict altogether.
This is precisely why it’s important to be strategic and think about how you want to manage conflict in your organization. As a leader, the way you handle conflict sets the tone for everyone else in your company. Do you encourage disagreement in company meetings, or do you quash it? Do you surround yourself with people who will challenge your views, or are you more comfortable with “yes men”? Are you looking for the best option, or merely advocating for your own ideas?
Are you comfortable being wrong?
Perhaps one of the hardest questions a leader needs to ask themselves is if they are secure enough in their leadership to be comfortable putting forth an idea, arguing for it, and still being wrong. Most of us consider ourselves to be open to new ideas (especially in the entrepreneurial culture), but are we really, truly open?
How often do we surround ourselves with people with different core values to challenge our own fundamental beliefs? If you already subscribe to news sources with opposing viewpoints and read authors from the other side of the fence, you can count yourself among the few in the US who are comfortable with this level of dissonance. “As human beings, we tend to evaluate information in a biased manner. For instance, we often fall prey to what psychologists and decision researchers call confirmation bias: the tendency to focus on evidence that confirms our beliefs and assumptions rather than looking for data that contradicts it.”
Nurture conflict. It allows for the best possible outcome.
However, conflict is one of the best ways to explore all aspects of a dilemma and reach the best possible outcome. There are few other avenues that will expose multiple options, allow for the open exploration of attributes and disadvantages, and, with the right cultivation, lead to the most intelligent decision. Often, leaders find that there isn’t a single source of truth for many of the decisions they face in their day-to-day lives. However, the role of the startup leadership team is to find the best path to success, and sometimes a good old-fashioned debate is the only path to an accurate cost-benefit analysis. Not sure how to nurture productive conflict? Get examples and steps as shared by leaders in Part 2 of this post.