Agree to Disagree

Here in the Midwest, we tend to be uncomfortable when people argue.  The normative corporate culture in St. Louis is consensus building, and executives take care not to do or say anything that might be interpreted as confrontational or insulting.  I’ve heard it referred to as a “gentlemanly” culture (of course, women participate in it too); it could be because St. Louis is just one remove from the South.

When I lived and worked as a management consultant in New York City, the many corporations I worked with couldn’t have been more different.  If you didn’t agree with something, you said so–and usually as explicitly as possible, not pulling punches to spare someone’s feelings.  Swearing and banging on conference room furniture was not that unusual.  I won’t name names, but I’m talking about some of the country’s best performing companies.  (I’ve heard this is also true of some extremely successful software companies today…you may know who I’m talking about.)
These cultural differences result in different approaches to teamwork and collaboration.  And fortunately, we have a lot of research about consensus, comformity, and disagreement in teams, and which makes teams more effective.  Adding to this long tradition is a new study, summarized by Stuart D. Sidle in the May issue of Academy of Management Perspectives, that shows that teams that disagree make better decisions.

The researchers (Schulz-Hardt and Mojzisch of Georg-August University, Brodbeck of Aston University, and Kerschreiter and Frey of Ludwig-Maximilians University) created 135 three-person groups, and asked them to choose between four candidates for a job.  Candidate C was the best one, but that wasn’t obvious to anyone in the group because each of the three group members was given different information about the four candidates.

Only 59 of the 135 groups decided to hire candidate C.  And the main difference was that those groups had more disagreement throughout their discussions.  What happened was that those groups who didn’t disagree rarely even noticed that all three people had different information, so the “hidden profiles” never came to light.  But disagreement led to more information sharing, and actually reduced the biases that interfere with effective collaboration.  The researchers concluded that a lone dissenter can improve the group’s decision quality, even if that dissenter turns out to be wrong, because he or she challenges the others to express their hidden profiles and share information more fully.

So what’s the message for my old clients in New York City and my friends here in St. Louis? St. Louis might be a bit too wary of dissent.  But there’s a downside to the New York style, too; teams also need coherence to be effective, and keeping the team together when they’re always arguing can be a struggle.  And a lot of people aren’t comfortable with so much disagreement; research shows that after meetings with no argument, everyone says they enjoyed the meeting more.  Creating a culture that fosters effective disagreement is a challenging task for senior management; managers need to make sure team members know how to engage in good argumentation, while retaining group flow and good collaboration.

Asia Versus the United States

(I’ve just been invited to be a guest blogger on; this post also appears there.) 

Are creativity and innovation different in different societies? This is a hot topic, particularly in fast-growing Asian countries including China and Korea. China’s leaders, for example, don’t want to be the low-cost commodity provider forever; their ambition is to become as innovative as the United States is today. China and Korea were the first places where I sold foreign translation rights to my new book Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration. My message in that book is that creativity always comes from collaboration, not from solo individuals.

There’s plenty of research suggesting that Asian societies should be better at collaboration. Many anthropologists group the world’s societies into “individualistic” and “collectivistic” cultures. In individualistic cultures, each person is thought to be independent, and to have a unique set of internally driven personality traits that make them different from everyone else. In contrast, collectivistic cultures think of people as deeply interdependent with their group. Asian cultures tend to fall at the collectivistic extreme, and the United States tends to fall at the individualistic extreme. So the puzzle is: How could the United States be so innovative, if all innovation in fact comes from groups and collaboration? Shouldn’t Asian societies be better at fostering group genius?

I started thinking about this again last week, when I read a 2006 article by Jack A. Goncalo and Barry M. Staw called “Individualism-collectivism and group creativity.” The paper reports on an experiment with 68 groups of college students. Half of them were primed with a task that would later encourage them to behave more individualistically; the other half did a different task that brought out the collectivistic side of their nature. Then the groups did a classic brainstorming task, and the creativity of all the group’s ideas were judged by an independent panel.

The results: the individualistic groups were significantly more creative than the collectivistic groups. They generated more ideas overall, and more ideas that were judged to be highly creative. Goncalo and Staw explain this by citing a range of previous studies, for example those showing that people often conform to the majority view emerging from the group, even when they know it’s wrong; and that dissent and argumentation causes groups to solve problems more effectively.

In my book, just like Goncalo and Staw, I note the potential weaknesses of groups–conformity pressures that all too often lead to “groupthink.” And I also describe the research showing that too much cohesion makes groups less effective. I hope that their article finds a receptive audience among Asian readers. But in the U.S., our companies need a different message, because maximum innovation emerges when you have a difficult-to-find balance of individualistic and collectivistic values. If everyone is being selfish and stubborn–highly individualistic, in other words–then that tends to make groups less creative, and to make companies less innovative. Many U.S. companies still foster a culture that goes too far to the individualistic extreme. The recent emphasis on teams and collaboration is just what these companies need.

The wrong message to take away from Goncalo and Staw’s research is that the U.S. will always be more innovative than collectivistic, Asian cultures. Optimum innovation will emerge from companies that fall somewhere in between; and we’re all still working hard to discover what that ideal organizational culture looks like.

The real meaning of “The Summer of Love”

I was only seven when all the hippies went to Haight-Ashbury in the summer of 1967, so I didn’t realize that this was the fortieth anniversary until I started seeing articles in the newspaper–social commentary about what an important transformative period it was for American society. Then, I saw an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by musician Ted Nugent, taking an opposite position, calling it “The Summer of Drugs.” Other than the civil rights movement, Nugent writes, “the decade is barren of any positive cultural or social impact.”

Nugent is right about the drug use; that’s legendary. But he’s missed the cultural and social impact of the period (and so has most of the positive news coverage). It’s not in its liberal politics, or its free sex lifestyle, or the colorful clothing and long hair. Rather, forty years later, what stands out about the late 1960s is that it was when the roots of today’s collective intelligence first formed. The Internet, the personal computer, and open source software all have their philosophical and social roots in the Summer of Love.

Take the Internet–it’s a global version of what was originally called hypertext, in an influential alternative comic book called Computer Lib/Dream Machines written by Ted Nelson and published in 1974. Take the personal computer–created by a bunch of hippie hobbyists who wanted to bring computer power to the people. Take open source software–although the free software movement didn’t officially start until Richard Stallman’s manifesto in 1983, his long hair and beard, along with his claim that ideas should circulate freely, clearly owe a debt to the 1960s.

Nugent and I obviously have different musical tastes; I’m a big fan of the Grateful Dead, the most important of the San Francisco bands, which Nugent refers to as “mostly soulless rock music”. The reason why I like them is that they’re the most improvisational of all rock bands. The Grateful Dead, and other San Francisco bands of the period, borrowed the egalitarian musical ethos of jazz and adapted it to rock music. Long drawn out solos are not for everyone, but whereas improvised jazz has always been an art form with a relatively small audience, the Grateful Dead had almost three decades, performing to sold out concert halls. (I could never defend the drug usage: as Nugent would point out, the band broke up in 1995 when lead guitarist and singer Jerry Garcia died, after years of struggling with drug addiction.)

Even if you don’t like that improvised rock sound, it’s a manifestation of the collective and open cultural values that also resulted in today’s information technology revolution. It’s hard to imagine life today without the Internet or the personal computer. That’s what history should remember about the Summer of Love.