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.

3 thoughts on “Agree to Disagree

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