Most people instinctively avoid conflict, but Margaret Heffernan, the former CEO of five businesses, says mastering the art of disagreement is essential to effective leadership. In her widely popular TED talk, Dare to Disagree, Heffernan explains how disagreements are the building blocks for progress and how individuals actually need conflict in order to move forward.
She gives an example of Dr. Alice Stewart, an epidemiologist, who in the 1950s was studying childhood cancer on a shoestring budget. Since she’d only be able to run a single study with minimal analysis, she surveyed people, asking them everything possible and seeing if anything gave a correlation. The overwhelming answer was that X-rays on pregnant women were increasing cancer risk in children. Her findings flew in the face of doctor’s roles (that their tests were harming patients) and common medical wisdom of the time. The controversial findings took 25 years of fighting before they were adopted by the British and American medical boards.
So for 25 years Alice had to prove that her findings were right. In order to do so, Alice worked with a statistician George Kneale — whose job was to dig into the numbers and disprove Alice’s findings (rather than mindlessly support them). His job was to create conflict around her findings, and in failing to do so he gave her the confidence she needed to know that she was right.
“It was a fantastic model of collaboration—thinking partners who aren’t echo chambers. I wonder how many of us have, or dare to have, such collaborators. Alice and George were very good at conflict. They saw it as thinking,” said Heffernan.
To find this kind of constructive conflict, it requires finding people who are very different from ourselves. Heffernan says that we have to resist the “neurobiological drive, which means that we really prefer people mostly like ourselves, and it means we have to seek out people with different backgrounds, different disciplines, different ways of thinking and different experiences and find ways to engage with them.”
In surveys of European and American executives, 85% of them acknowledged that they had issues or concerns at work that they were afraid to raise. 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 were bound to lose. Heffernan explains how this data shows that organizations mostly can’t do what George and Alice did. They can’t think together and that means that people, “like many of us who have run organizations, and gone out of our way to try and find the very best people we can, mostly fail to get the best out of them.”
Heffernan offers this advice on how to have these conversations more easily and more often.
“The fact is that most of the biggest catastrophes that we’ve witnesses rarely come from information that is secret or hidden. It comes from information that is freely available and out there, but that we are willfully blind to, because we can’t handle, don’t want to handle, the conflict that it provokes. But when we dare to break that silence, or when we dare to see, and we create conflict, we enable ourselves and the people around us to do our very best thinking.
Open information is fantastic, open networks are essential. But the truth won’t set us free until we develop the skills and the habit and the talent and the moral courage to use it. Openness isn’t the end. It’s the beginning.”
If you watch the entire TED Talk, Dare to Disagree here.