It’s good to agree
The success of an organisation over time can be predicted by the amount and breadth of relevant and timely information it can access, process and act upon. An organisation that demands unquestioning compliance to a particular set of views, processes and practices often provides predictable quality, productivity and workplace social environments (especially in regard to power). These types of narrow controlled workplace routines can be very attractive because they appeal to our common neuropsychological motivators of certainty, control and conflict (pain) avoidance.
Agreement encourages smiles and good relationships, which trigger the release of dopamine and oxytocin which create feelings of happiness, well-being and social acceptance, training us to look for further opportunities to repeat those behaviours and receive those rewards – seeking agreement and acceptance can be quite addictive, and appeal to our neuropsychological motivators of attachment and, through finding agreement, self-esteem enhancement. For those who comfortably comply with organisational norms, often referred to as being a good cultural fit, these types of organisations can be mentally safe and rewarding workplaces where people can get on well and perform work tasks with little, or at least predictable, levels of stress. It seems that rationally and emotionally there are good reasons to create and protect a status quo.
It’s good to disagree
As with any social system, as workplaces mature and stabilise they naturally develop the sorts of inertia noted above. Some people feel comfortable, stay and generally comply to the dominant social rituals and beliefs, while those who do not see things the same way leave, taking with them a different range of experiences, skills and perspectives (Herriot & Pemberton, 1995) reducing the knowledge accessible to the organisation and its ability to solve problems and innovate. More than that, homogeneity and the group-think (Janis, 1972; Janis 1982) that accompanies it reduces the organisation’s ability to even perceive that a problem or opportunity exists, preferring social compliance to good decision making not out of intent, but out of a motivation to do so and an ability to do otherwise. In an age where organisational success so heavily relies on the ability to learn, innovate and adapt, this comfortable pattern of power, compliance and intransigence does not support the conditions for sustained success.
Disagreement & conflict
Even with good intentions, disagreement can be hard and seeking disagreement can feel unnatural. Differences of opinion and perspective can upset our views of the world and challenge our values. Disagreement can destabilise our sense of wrong and right, and threaten our self-worth. It can be hard to look at someone else’s idea with the same open, trustful and forgiving mind that we look at our own, and how favourably we process the words of others depends on how we are predisposed toward them – if we trust and respect someone, we are more likely to trust and respect their ideas whereas if we don’t know or don’t like someone, we are much less likely to interpret their words with the same generosity.
Neuropsychologically, disagreement is often a threat to our self-esteem and our need for orientation and control, and so our biological response to disagreement is similar to that of any other deeply personal threat – we run away from it or we fight it. Disagreement quickly escalates to conflict and the outcome is redefined emotionally and personally, with little room for rationality and none for creativity. As a learned response, some people simply withdraw from situations of potential disagreement and keep their (often valuable) opinions and knowledge to themselves, while the “victors” (more often those with superior power rather than a superior proposition) become estranged and distrusted and the organisation loses its capacity to engage with and benefit from its people.
An ideal outcome
The challenge for organisations is to access the benefits of an agreeable, predictable, safe, conflict-free environment with one where information and ideas are exchanged freely and discussed and evaluated on their merits, irrespective of who they come from or what they challenge. Whilst this goal might seem too idealistic to be possible, due to our brain’s ability to learn and change (and it is a real, physical change) with intent and skill creating this type of workplace environment is achievable in relatively quick time. Over time and with practice the positive thinking and behaviours that reinforce these conditions become second nature, embedded in personal habits and organisational culture, allowing for:
- Improved problem solving
- Reduced conflict, misuse of power, isolation and stress
- Increased cooperation, coordination and productivity
- Improved innovative capacity
- Improved knowledge sharing
- Improved workplace relationships
- Improved employee engagement, productivity and retention
- Improved job security and career pathways
- Increased ability to attract and retain high performing employees and leaders
- Improved organisational competitiveness, resilience and success
It is reasonable to think of an organisation’s willingness and ability to invite, manage and benefit from disagreement as a predictor of outcomes, both for the organisation and the people within and around it.
As well as lacking the skills for collaborative interactions, a common challenge for managers is to feel they are better off for having accessed the ideas of others, either through lack of confidence, lack of respect or personal insecurity (on the false premise that they hold their position through what they know rather than what they knowledge can access). To understand how this approach can contribute to better decision making, even where there is an extreme imbalance, imagine a room containing eleven people where one person uniquely holds 90% of all the useful knowledge, and the remaining ten people each uniquely hold 1% each. Is the group better off for having only accessed the knowledge of the wisest person, or to have been able to access the combined knowledge of all?
From Disagreement and Avoidance to Creative Problem Solving, Collaboration & Conflict Resolution
In understanding how to move away from arguments, misuse of power and avoidance to creating better outcomes through creative problem solving, collaboration and conflict resolution, a common neuropsychological theme emerges. The starting place is with our primary motivations for safety in relationships, social place and self-esteem. When we feel our safety, in any form, is threatened our reactions are naturally led emotionally, with an accompanying physical preparation for action. In this state, our capacity for rationality is reduced and our brains adopt a position of defensiveness, neither of which are useful in learning, cooperating, collaborating or creating positive and/or creative solutions.
An environment conducive to improved collaborative potential and reduced interpersonal conflict has the following hallmarks:
- An institutional desire for continued learning and improvement promoted and exemplified by senior leadership
- A dominant workplace culture of curiosity and idea-building rather than judgement and protection. The words “what if” should be heard often
- Leadership and management skills that include engaging, harvesting, exploring, developing and sharing ideas without prejudice
- A workplace social system that does not leverage power or restrict knowledge, instead leveraging respect and celebrating contributions
- A workplace that monitors and evaluates conflict and how it affects the people and the system, intervening with management or counseling before emotions, relationships or outcomes are threatened
Neuropsychologically this type of collaborative approach reduces protective (defensive or aggressive) behaviours, replacing competition and suspicion with trust and mutual commitment. The shared experiences of problem-solving release dopamine and oxytocin for feelings of well-being and sociability, rewards that train brains to want to behave in this way again and more often. Additionally, through satisfying the needs of orientation and control, people are more committed to the solution to which they feel a sense of attachment, resulting in better support and implementation.
In these ways organisations can become skilled at disagreeing as a normal workplace activity, minimising interpersonal conflict by ensuring disagreements are about things that are external to them, such as perceptions, ideas and behaviours, at all times looking for positive solutions while remaining open to the ideas of others and open to the idea that the no single person has all the “correct” or complete answers.
If your organisation could benefit from less harmful conflict, improved cooperation and collaboration, and more effective problem-solving and innovation contact us
Phone: 1300 307 207
Herriot, P., Pemberton, C. (1995) Competitive advantage through diversity: Organisational learning from difference, Thousand Oaks CA, Sage
Janis, I (1972) Victims of Groupthink, New York NY, Houghton Mifflin
Janis, I (1982) Groupthink: Psychological studies of policy decisions and fiascoes, 2nd ed, New York NY, Houghton Mifflin