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In 1956, a British doctor named Alice Stewart made an alarming discovery. Pregnant women who were exposed to X-rays, she found, were more likely to have children who would die from cancer.
We know now that the radiation from X-rays is indeed harmful. But at the time, Stewart’s finding flew in the face of the accepted narrative about X-rays—that they were the paragon of modern scientific achievement, and that their use would improve lives, not harm them.
Stewart published her findings, expecting a massive buzz. Instead, nothing happened. So set were the minds of the medical establishment that they dismissed Stewart’s assertion as unsound. But Stewart didn’t give up. Instead, she collaborated with a statistician named George Kneale, who said his job, simply, was “to prove Dr. Stewart wrong.” In her 2012 TED Talk, Margaret Heffernan said of Kneale that,
“He actively sought disconfirmation. Different ways of looking at her models, at her statistics, different ways of crunching the data in order to disprove her. He saw his job as creating conflict around her theories. Because it was only by not being able to prove that she was wrong, that George could give Alice the confidence she needed to know that she was right.”
We often want to avoid disagreements because they can be messy and painful. But for a business to be truly successful, they’re absolutely necessary. Stewart allowed her theory to be stress-tested by someone intent on proving her wrong, and in doing so, changed the status quo (and saved countless lives in the process). Below, I explore how to foster an environment that welcomes debate, rather than discourages it.
Create a safe atmosphere for disagreement
According to one Survey Monkey study, only 58 percent of women and 68 percent of men said they felt they could express a dissenting opinion at work without negative consequences. That’s a lot of missed opportunity for potential growth.
Of course, there is a time and place to disagree. The middle of a meeting with investors might not be the optimal time to tell your co-founder that you think her idea for the re-brand is garbage.
Instead, be intentional about your forum. Consider establishing regular sit-downs where frank conversation is expected, and limit the scope and time to avoid getting off topic. Feedback should be constructive and non-emotional, without any tolerance for personal attacks. Remember, people are more receptive to criticism and debate when it’s factual and rooted in relevant examples.
While it’s tempting to think that a lack of disagreements is the sign of a healthy workplace, the opposite is true. As Harvard Business Review contributor Liane Davey wrote, “If you think you’re ‘taking one for the team’ by not rocking the boat, you’re deluding yourself.”
“Teams need conflict to function effectively,” she says. “Conflict allows the team to come to terms with difficult situations, to synthesize diverse perspectives, and to make sure solutions are well thought-out.” Conflict may not be pleasant, but it is the source of true innovation.
Be willing to change your mind
Laying the groundwork for constructive debate really only works if everyone involved is open to having their minds changed.
This isn’t always easy. Knowing this, PhD. Jim Stone laid out five steps to having a truly open-minded debate.
The first two steps are to recognize our common humanity, and try to learn the story of how someone arrived at their viewpoint. “By default we tend to see a person who has different views as an opponent. And we fall into a ‘debate’ frame with them,” Stone writes. Instead, try thinking in terms of what’s called a “dialogue frame,” which emphasizes what we have in common, rather than what we don’t. The second step builds on the first, allowing you to put yourself in the other person’s shoes.
Next, make sure everyone involved feels safe rethinking their argument. “If you want the other person to open their mind, you have to make them feel safe doing so,” writes Stone. One of the best ways to do this is to establish outright that a change of heart is okay, saying something like, “I want to feel free to take things back if they don’t hold up. And, of course, I’ll give you permission to do that, too.”
The fourth step is validating the other person’s experience so that they feel understood, which means not undermining or questioning whether they really feel how they say they do. That said, it’s totally possible — and often necessary — to validate while pushing back against their interpretation.
The fifth and final step is never losing sight of the goal of the conversation. If you need to speak up to someone in a position of power, like a supervisor or investor, for example, make it clear that your objective, like theirs, is simply to advance the company’s mission.
Ask others their opinions
Not all dissent is created equal. Surrounding yourself with experts and critical thinkers—especially those who think differently than you—will give you the chance to put your ideas to the test. Besides, asking the opinions of those around you shows trust and admiration of expertise, and people who ask for help are perceived as more competent than those who don’t.
As Heffernan says in her talk, seeking out diverse opinions forces us to “resist the neurobiological drive, which means that we really prefer people mostly like ourselves.”
“It means we have to seek out people with different backgrounds, different disciplines, different ways of thinking and different experience, and find ways to engage with them,” she says. “That requires a lot of patience and a lot of energy.”
Be intellectually honest
As the head of my startup, I may believe that I am right—but unless I can build consensus among my team, that often doesn’t matter.
Being intellectually honest means striving for the truth, whether or not it jibes with your beliefs. In business, this means that decisions are rooted in facts, not by the position of the individual presenting it, writes Perry Tam, the co-founder of Storm8.
“Truly great companies foster a culture of innovation, which is driven by collaboration and the ability to embrace change,” he writes. “The best companies have employees and leaders who have the curiosity to learn and improve—and an innate desire to discover a better and more efficient way of doing things.”