(By David Burkus)
“When ideas are still being developed or decisions still being considered, criticism and constructive conflict are vital to testing the value of the ideas and helping increase that value. Conflict is an indicator that diverse viewpoints are being considered and that the competition for ideas is still ongoing. During this competition, ideas are strengthened through further research, consideration or through the blending of different ideas into one stronger concept. By contrast, when everyone in a group always agrees, it can indicate that the group doesn’t have very many ideas, or that they value agreement more than quality suggestions.“
It’s tough to find examples of successfully challenging the boss, even tougher to find stories of leaders who specifically ask to be challenged. The most common is a tale of Alfred P. Sloan at General Motors. During a meeting in which GM’s top management team was considering a weighty decision, Sloan closed the meeting by asking.” “Gentlemen, I take it we are all in complete agreement on the decision here?” Sloan then waited as each member of the assembled committee nodded in agreement. Sloan continued, “Then, I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what this decision is about.”
What Sloan was looking for was something many of us seek to eliminate: dissent. There’s a lot of discussion on how leaders ought to cast a vision, gain buy-in, or steer a group to consensus. There’s a lot less discussion on how leaders ought to cultivate a culture that values the right kind of criticism. That criticism is what Sloan was looking for, and what research tells us we need in order to make the best decision.
When ideas are still being developed or decisions still being considered, criticism and constructive conflict are vital to testing the value of the ideas and helping increase that value. Conflict is an indicator that diverse viewpoints are being considered and that the competition for ideas is still ongoing. During this competition, ideas are strengthened through further research, consideration or through the blending of different ideas into one stronger concept. By contrast, when everyone in a group always agrees, it can indicate that the group doesn’t have very many ideas, or that they value agreement more than quality suggestions.
In one study of conflict and decision-making, participants were divided into three experimental conditions (control, brainstorming, and debate) and formed into teams within those conditions. Each team was tasked with generating ideas for the same challenge: how to reduce traffic congestion in the San Francisco Bay area. The “control” teams were given no further instructions and told to develop as many ideas as possible. The “brainstorming” teams were given the traditional set of brainstorming rules, chief among those rules was the notion that all judgment should be suspended and no idea criticized or debated. The final, “debate” teams were given a set of rules similar to the “brainstorming” teams but with one important difference. Instead of deferring judgment, they were told to debate and criticize others’ ideas as they were generated.
When the results were calculated, the winners were clear. While teams in the brainstorming condition did generate more ideas than the teams given no instructions, it was the teams in the debate condition that outperformed the rest, producing an average of 25 percent more ideas than the other two conditions in the same period of time. Even after the teams had disbanded, the influence of criticism on generating ideas continued. In follow-up interviews with each subject, researchers asked the participants if they had any more ideas for solving the traffic problem. Each participant from the control and brainstorming conditions did have one or two more ideas, but participants in the debate condition gave an average of seven additional ideas per person. Teams that utilized conflict in their process consistently outperformed teams that focused on cohesion. In a summary of the study’s results, the researchers write “Our findings show that debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas but, rather, stimulate them relative to every other condition.” The researchers had discovered what Sloan seemed to already know, that cultivating criticism and dissent could yield more quantity of ideas, and that quantity could help make better quality decisions.
Sloan wasn’t the first to recognize that dissent and criticism could help strengthen decision. One organization has been doing it for centuries: the Catholic Church. Starting with Pope Sixtus V in 1587, the Catholic Church assigned one special dissenter to find and present reasons for why nominated candidates should not be canonized as saints. This person was referred to as the Defender of the Faith, or more commonly the “Devil’s Advocate.” Taking special care to consider a dissenting view provided an alternative perspective that strengthened their decisions. From 1857 to 1983, when the Devil’s Advocate policy was removed, 98 individuals were named saints. From 1983 until today, over 500 hundred people have been granted sainthood. While it’s difficult to compare the quality of decisions before and after the reform, the impact of the policy on the Church’s decision-making process is clear.
If assigning a lone dissenter to be the bearer of bad tidings may not suit your team, consider the technique used by a notable but vastly different organization: Pixar. During the long process of creating a blockbuster film, the teams at Pixar rely on criticism to make their work stronger. To keep the benefits of criticism without the negativism, Pixar uses an idea called “plussing.” Plussing means that anytime someone comments on another work, that comment must contain a “plus” — a way to improve or build on the work. Plussing gives the director or animator something they need besides just a critique, it gives them a place to build from and improve their work. Through plussing, Pixar has found a formula for keeping criticism positive, while positively improving the quality of their work.
Whether you rely on centuries old techniques like the devil’s advocate, new methods such as plussing, or just choose to postpone meetings until someone brings in a counterpoint, your teams will make better decisions when you cultivate a little positive criticism.
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