Humanity Advances Through Disagreement

Humanity benefits from having different types of people. Some people question everything and others don’t question anything. Humanity benefits people to not question things because this is how things get done. On the other hand we need people that do question things so that we can review and re assess what are doing and make sure that the things that are getting done are the “best” things to get done as opposed to just doing them people before us did things that way. 

Margaret Heffernan (3.4) is an author of multiple books. She tells the story of a doctor in the 1950s called Alice Stewart. She researched cancer in children and found that, by a ratio of two to one, the children that had cancer had a mother that was x-rayed while pregnant. She widely published her research. However, it still took 25 years for the British and American medical establishments to act on the research. Openness alone did not drive change. Stewart started to work with a statistician named George Neil. Alice was outgoing and sociable but George was a recluse. Alice was warm and empathetic with her patients where as George preferred numbers to people. George said that it was his job to prove Dr. Stewart wrong. If George could fail to prove her wrong then it would give Alice the confidence she needed to believe she was right. The model of collaboration in this relationship involved disagreeing as opposed to agreeing. How many of us have or did have such collaborators. 

Alice and George were very good at conflict – they called it thinking. What does this kind of constructive conflict require? First of all, it requires that we find people that are very different from themselves. This means that we have to resist the neurobiological drive to be with people like ourselves. We have to seek out people with different backgrounds, different disciplines, ways of thinking and find ways to engage with them. This is a kind of love. You cannot commit the time and energy required to do this unless you really care. It also means that we have to be prepared to change our minds. 

Heffernan says that it’s one thing to do this in a one-to-one relationship. However, it seems that the biggest problems that we face come from organizations, some of the bigger the countries, many of them capable of affecting millions of lives. So how do organizations think? For the most part, they don’t. Is it because they don’t want to. Heffernan says that it’s because they can’t. It’s because the people inside of them are too afraid of conflict. In surveys of American and European executives 85% of them acknowledged that they had issues or concerns at work that they were afraid to raise. They were afraid of the conflict that it would provoke. Afraid to get embroiled in arguments that they did not know how to manage and felt that they would inevitably lose. 85% is obviously an extremely high number. It means that most organizations cannot do what George and Alice did. They can’t think together. It also means that those of us that run organizations and go out of our way to get the best people mostly fail at getting the best out of them. How do we develop the skills that we need? Heffernan says that, if we’re not going to be afraid of conflict we have to see it as thinking and then we have to get really good at it.

Heffernan provides the example of Joe who worked at a medical device company. He was working on a device that had a margin for error that was large enough to potentially hurt people. He noticed that everybody in the organization seemed unconcerned. He didn’t know whether he should say anything because he wasn’t sure if he would look stupid. He grew even more worried and started considering leaving the company. However he eventually decided to raise his concern then what happened next is what always happens in this situation – everybody said that they had the same concern. So now Joe had allies. There was a lot of dispute but the fact that he had allies allowed everybody a seat at the table and green light to be creative and attempts to solve the problem. Joe is what a lot of people might think of as a whistleblower. He was extremely afraid of conflict until he eventually became more afraid of the consequences of not speaking up. When he eventually spoke up he discovered more give in the system then he had ever imagined. Now many of his colleagues think of him as a leader.

So how do we have these conversations more easily and more often? University of Delft tells its students to submit five statements that they are prepared to defend. It doesn’t matter what the statements are about – all that matters is that the students are willing and able to stand up to authority. The skills should be taught to kids and adults at every stage of development if we want to have thinking organizations and the thinking society. Many of the catastrophes that we have witnessed have not necessarily resulted from information that is secret or hidden. They occurred at times when critical and persuasive information was freely available but we were willfully blind to the information because we didn’t want to handle the conflict that would result from acting on it. Open information and open networks are essential however this is only part one of a two-part solution. Creating an environment where everybody has a green light to challenge the information and the status quo without fear of negative consequences is part B. Heffernan says that openness isn’t the end, it’s the beginning.

Importance of disagreement

Humanity benefits from having different types of people. There are people that question everything and people that don’t question anything and others that are somewhere in between. We need some people to not question things because this is how things get done. On the other hand we need people that do question things so that we can re assess what are doing and make sure that the things that are getting done are best things to get done. 

Next article in this series: “Education”

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