Why we shouldn't always get along

A dentist, a doctor, an auditor, a world renowned university professor and an international affairs writer were sitting around my table one night. No, it’s not the setup for a joke. It was a dinner party at my house though some might think it was a risk bringing these very different people together.

Instead, it was an exceptionally pleasant evening.

Any minor disagreements were settled with laughs. For the most part we agreed about everything, from the British schooling system to the state of the European Union. As I looked around the table I thought “Why can’t all gatherings be this easy and fun? If only every board meeting could be this jolly.”

But the things that make for a great dinner party are not necessarily the things that make for a good decision-making body. Indeed, in some cases they might be just the opposite.

Sure, board meetings would be so enjoyable if every gathering were filled people with whom we wholly agree. We’d have a laugh, things would move along quickly, decisions would be made easily, and then, at the end of the meeting, we could have a congenial meal and head out.

But that is not the role of a board or any gathering that hopes to hash out tough issues. Nor should it be. As a board director, part of my role is to ask hard questions and challenge assumptions – both my own and others’. In the end, if the group has enough expertise and good judgement around the table, it will come to a better decision because of that robust discussion.

There is a line of thinking that organisations must strive for complete harmony at all times, but a bit of disharmony can be very fruitful. Feeling comfortable with disagreement, as long as it does not escalate into something personal or destructive, can lead to much better outcomes.

It is similar to the sand in the oyster that makes the pearl: If there isn’t room for a little something different, then we are less likely to see exciting results. The same is true for decision-making groups. If we are to achieve innovation and disruption, then sometimes we first need discordance and discontent.

For this to be successful, organisations need two things to be in place.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

First, a fundamental understanding that there is a respect for the people who gather. If those who dare to disagree are treated poorly or contemptuously, then the organisation will suffer. If the larger organisation is not accepting of new ideas and suggestions, then creativity can be squelched. People need to know that their place of work is a safe place for disparate ideas to be presented and solutions to flourish.

That is not to say that they can be flame throwers or disrupters just for the sake of it. That isn’t productive either. But if someone has something constructive to say or ask, then they, and a productive discussion of their ideas, should be encouraged.

Able leaders

Second, it takes a special kind of leader to turn possible discord into something productive and fruitful. This applies to those at the head of an organisation, as well as the facilitator of any discussion. You need someone who allows and manages disparate views and ideas, as well as someone who can make sure that the discussion will be productive.

I once arranged for a master facilitator do exactly this during a potentially contentious meeting about how to help develop women leaders across the Western Balkans. She started by offering up some very provocative ideas of her own and encouraged the other participants to challenge her. This meant that participants who normally found very little to agree on outside the room suddenly felt a common cause in disagreeing with the facilitator.

As the discussion evolved and ideas began to crystalize, she not only managed to help the participants arrive at a workable consensus that they could take back to their own organisations to implement, but she also demonstrated that they had far more in common than they might have thought they did before the meeting.

The secret to her success was that she had run the meeting so that each person felt they had been heard, their views had been given full consideration and that there was a productive path forward.

Meetings with creative tension can bring an exhilaration and satisfaction that perhaps can’t be found in a comfortable jolly meal with friends. Organisations can be made stronger through creative friction.

Bringing together people with different ideas, knowledge, and experience and turning that conversation into something useful for the future of the organisation is worth the effort.

This column is from Above Board with Lucy Marcus, which illuminates how boards work, the consequences when they don’t work, and how they can succeed. To receive alerts from the BBC about new Above Board with Lucy Marcus columns, please subscribe here

Date

9 December 2014

Why we shouldn't always get along

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