Margaret Heffernan tells us that good disagreement is central to progress.
In the 1950s, Alice Stewart was studying childhood cancer on a shoestring budget. Because she could only run a single study with minimal analysis, she surveyed people, asking them as much as possible to see if a correlation would present itself. The overwhelming answer was that X-rays on pregnant women were increasing cancer risks in children.
Her findings challenged doctor’s roles and common medical wisdom of the time. The controversial findings took 25 years of fighting before they were adopted by the medical boards of the United Kingdom and the United States. To give Stewart confidence in her findings, she utilized the knowledge of statistician George Neil, whose job was to dig into the numbers and disprove her findings (rather than mindlessly support them). Put simply, he was tasked with creating conflict around her research. When he failed to do so, Stewart was given added confidence.
“It’s a fantastic model of collaboration—thinking partners who aren’t echo chambers,” said Margaret Heffernan, an entrepreneur, CEO, writer and keynote speaker. “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.”
According to Heffernan, this is called constructive conflict, and it requires that we work with people who are different from ourselves—people who have different backgrounds, thought processes and personalities.
In corporations, 85 percent of executives acknowledge that they have refrained from raising issues or concerns at work because they didn’t want to cause conflict—they were afraid of the conflict that they might provoke, afraid to get embroiled in arguments that they did not know how to manage, and that they were bound to lose. Oftentimes, everyone else may see the same issues, but they’re just too afraid to talk about them.
“This means that organizations mostly can’t do what George and Alice so triumphantly did. They can’t think together. And it means that people like many of us, who have run organizations, and gone out of our way to try to find the very best people we can, mostly fail to get the best out of them,” Heffernan said.”
So how can we make these conversations easier? Heffernan says that many pHd students at certain universities are forced to submit five statements that they are willing to defend. The main point of this assignment is to teach students how to better deal with being challenged. She suggests that these types of skills need to be offered to kids and adults at every stage of their development to encourage a thinking society that’s well equipped to handle conflict constructively.
“The fact is that most of the biggest catastrophes that we’ve witnessed rarely come from information that is secret of 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,” Heffernan concludes. “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.”