June 8, 2023

Why We Need More (Healthy) Disagreements at Work

In 1840s Vienna, Ignaz Semmelweis, a young Hungarian doctor, noticed that mothers and babies in doctor-staffed wards died of postpartum infection five times more often than on midwife-staffed wards. Unlike the midwives, the doctors were also performing autopsies without washing their hands between procedures. Curious about a possible connection, Semmelweis urged the doctors to wash their hands and disinfect with a chloride solution before deliveries. The gap in death rates disappeared. Sadly, his fellow doctors dismissed the findings and refused to continue his changes. He lost his job and died in an insane asylum at 47. Not until two decades after his death, when scientists championed germ theory, did Semmelweis’ monumental discovery become accepted practice.

This story perfectly illustrates the adage, “If everyone is thinking alike, then no one is thinking.” One of the most insidious threats to growth and innovation is the inability to accept arguments (or even evidence) that contradict what we believe. We all too quickly "cancel" views that don’t align with ours. We embed our beliefs so deeply within our identities that we feel personally threatened by new information. We’re unable to separate our ideas from our egos. Particularly in today’s deeply divided America, Edelman’s global trust barometer confirms this threat is rising: 64% of people believe we are incapable of having civil or constructive debates.

One of the biggest casualties is innovation. By its very definition, innovation is disagreement: the desire to change or disrupt a current situation. Research proves that debate is more effective than brainstorming at spurring innovation, generating more productive ideas than traditional brainstorming, where ideas aren’t criticized. This makes sense: respectful debate helps us build on each other’s contributions and leverage our diverse experiences and expertise. The inevitable friction improves the quality of the outcome. If we destroy our ability to wrestle with alternative perspectives, we forgo true collaboration and settle for groupthink, complacency and the status quo.

At this time of rapid change and disruptive technological growth, we can't afford to settle. We must learn to disagree without scorching the earth and retreating to our respective corners. It won’t happen overnight: healthy disagreement requires practice and care because it’s scary stuff. Here are three ways to encourage it.

  1. Normalize Debate

    Hierarchy impedes disagreement. It’s tough to tell your boss that you think they're wrong. In fact, more than 90% of nurses said they would not correct a doctor – even if a patient is at risk. Openly welcoming debate and dissent softens the challenge of speaking truth to power, neutralizes hierarchy and taps into the collective knowledge base of your entire workforce. Disagreement must be an expectation in your workplace. McKinsey does this well with its “obligation to dissent,” requiring team members to raise misgivings or concerns and submit them to team consideration. Even half-baked ideas are acknowledged with respect. Whether or not these concerns change outcomes, their inclusion in team debate improves the process, tests worthy possibilities and engages diverse perspectives.

    Similarly, Intel's famous “disagree and commit” invites debate and disagreement before a decision is made, requiring people to make their concerns part of the decision making process itself. It’s like a wedding officiant inviting the guests to “speak now or forever hold your peace.” We won’t always agree, but there’s a built-in moment to speak your mind.
  2. Seek Dissent

    A leader’s behavior often makes a difference between the talk and the walk. A leader under the gun, pressured to move to a decision, can easily overlook concerns or alternatives when a team stays quiet. It’s easy to mistake silence for support. Science confirms that we underestimate the willingness of others to entertain conflicting views. To combat this tendency, ask direct and open questions: “What am I not considering?” or “What am I dead wrong about?” A bold statement that you want to hear and actively consider other perspectives goes a long way to promote the productive examination of divergent ideas. When a team sees leaders questioning themselves and pressure testing their own conclusions, they learn that dissent is welcomed.

    During his tenure as CEO of General Motors, Alfred P. Sloan found himself with a quiet team as they tackled an important decision. He asked whether they were in complete agreement and watched each member nod his head. But instead of moving forward, he postponed the issue’s resolution, instructing the team to “develop disagreement and gain some understanding of what this decision is about.” Sloan knew that when issues are weighty, groupthink is dangerous. It’s not enough to say that disagreement matters. Ask serious questions and listen carefully. By actively seeking out divergent views, you make space for people to speak up and share new ideas that might take you to a better answer.
  3. Make It Safe To Speak Up

    For debate to be effective, it must be authentic. Playing devil’s advocate as a substitute for engaging in true debate proves counterproductive. It only causes people to argue harder to avoid changing their minds. But authentic debate can feel risky, especially during insecure times. During the pandemic, in late 2021, a study of 1,300 people revealed that 90% felt physically or emotionally unsafe to speak up during the previous year and a half. This ability to speak up is the acid test of a team's psychological safety, the belief that you can disagree without risk of retribution or humiliation. When silence feels like the safest course, there can be no culture of debate.

    Authentic debate is hard. And like most hard things, it takes practice. The CIO of an educational organization saw the power of practice first hand. Her CEO and fellow team members got together each month, with a facilitator, to explore short stories chosen to spur discussion on issues important to the team. Their conversations were lively and engaged, with plenty of debate and disagreement. “These discussions taught us how to fight,” the CIO explained. This intentional time adjacent to work invited them to “get closer to the edges and practice healthy ways of engaging in conflict.” After just a few months, team members reported a marked improvement in how they were able to tackle workplace challenges and disagree respectfully. The skills they built in practice bolstered their work, leading to better results.

Somewhere in your organization, there’s a Semmelweis: someone who questions the things others have become conditioned to accept. It’s not enough to hope their voices somehow emerge. You need to encourage the best ideas from all corners of your organization. And that starts by building a culture that expects and celebrates debate. Make learning from others the highest priority. Recognize and reward the dissenters and invite them to challenge you. We build the best ideas when we challenge each other. It's long past time to make disagreement healthy again.

First published in Forbes.com.

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