Stressed IT professional

In praise of disharmony

Image: Stockfresh

17 November 2017

Billy MacInnesShould teams argue amongst themselves if they want to do better? It doesn’t sound right, does it? It seems to run counter to the ‘let’s all pull together and make the best of it’ school of thought which tends to dominate most organisations and teams but there could well be value in a bit of dissension and argument.

According to research into UK workers by Dropbox, 69% said they weren’t comfortable disagreeing with others at work. While some might view that as a good trait, a related study from the School of Life, entitled The Vices and Virtues of Collaboration, argues it’s not: “We tend to associate collaboration with harmony. As a result of this delusion, we can end up behaving in some rather passive ways.”

The study notes that while it is “understandable to try to avoid the discomfort of conflict”, contention “is a highly productive force” because people have to defend their insights “against intelligent criticism” which leads them to recognise the weaknesses in their plans.

Withholding contentious views means “the collaborative process no longer benefits from as rich a diversity of insight. It is easy in a placatory environment to sink into a deadening form of ‘groupthink’. The ideal collaborative project, therefore, must involve tension and profound disagreement”.

It sounds sensible in theory but it can’t be easy when you’re being contentious with people who are senior to you in the organisation and who have the power to dismiss your ideas (and possibly you as well) if they feel like it. Then there’s the matter of hurting other people’s feelings if they are not comfortable with being contentious. There’s a danger you could end up with a lopsided discussion if contentious people end up drowning out those who have valid opinions but are uncomfortable expressing them in a potentially adversarial atmosphere.

This is probably why the study suggests that it makes sense to “depersonalise” conflict and to disassociate personal worth from the success of our work. Nevertheless, it admits that some organisations have “arguably gone too far and instituted cultures of direct and vicious contention where employees are encouraged to tear into each other’s ideas in a no-holds barred style”.

Striking a balance between valid scrutiny of ideas and insights and viciously attacking them shouldn’t be too hard, but first you have to move beyond the point where you can comfortably raise issues and concerns in a collaborative environment.

I was also fascinated by the section which looked at “imposter syndrome” where people feel they are playing a role, are out of their depth and resort to “appearing professional” by using specialist jargon or acronyms they don’t really understand. “In short, we resort to bluster,” the study states. The good news is that looking like a fool and making blunders doesn’t render people “unfit for the workplace”.

As the study adds: “We are all idiots now, we have been idiots in the past, and we will be idiots again in the future – and that is OK.”

I think that’s supposed to be comforting but if I was being contentious, I might view it as patronising and insulting instead.

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