Turn Your Toxic Conflicts into Productive Disagreements

By Brett Beasley

Better disagreements can lead to smarter decisions and closer connections. But first we need to approach dialogue more deliberately.

Dialogue

People, I just want to say, can we all get along?” Rodney King famously pleaded. Today, the harmony King called for often seems just as elusive as it did when riots raged around him in Los Angeles nearly 30 years ago. In fact, some business leaders have recently decided to answer King’s question with a resounding, “No.”

“Today's social and political waters are especially choppy,” wrote Jason Fried, CEO of Basecamp, a project management software company. “Sensitivities are at 11, and every discussion remotely related to politics, advocacy, or society at large quickly spins away from pleasant.” "No comment thread on Basecamp is going to close the gap on fundamental philosophical and political differences," wrote Basecamp co-founder David Heinemeier Hansson," And we're left worse for wear when we try." So Fried and Hansson made the choice to ban “social and political discussions” from their company's own internal Basecamp account.

Nor was Basecamp the first to take a big step back from controversial topics. The cryptocurrency exchange platform Coinbase recently decided it will not take any public position on social and political issues. Announcing the new policy, CEO Brian Armstrong called “social activism” a “distraction” citing “internal strife” at companies like Facebook and Google.

The fallout from Basecamp's decision might give other organizations some pause before following suit. The company's ban on political and social discussions prompted resignations from over a third of the company’s staff. Fried was taken off guard, admitting, “We started with policy changes that felt simple, reasonable, and principled, and it blew things up internally in ways we never anticipated.”

But the results of the Edelman Trust Barometer survey help us see the powder keg that led to the explosion: Edelman reports that in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, employees are more prepared than ever to “protest or speak out against their employer if they strongly disagree with a company action or policy.” Given that employees are now seen as the most important stakeholder driving companies' long term success, Edelman recommends “enabling an employee experience that creates a true dialogue with your people” and “[s]upporting that with a platform for sharing employee voices, inside and outside the organization.”

Research suggests that avoiding bans and promoting better dialogue might also come with added benefits:

Disagreement doesn't have to lead to distraction. Some teams find that productive disagreement is not only possible; it is the way they produce their best work. Take, for example, a recent study of Wikipedia editors. Researchers found that teams of Wikipedia editors with a range of politically diverse perspectives created higher quality articles than teams that were politically homogeneous.

Disagreement doesn't have to be destructive. Companies that provide space for the right kinds of disagreement can help foster an ethical culture. Fried’s message suggested that employees redraw the boundary line between their “private” and “work” lives. (Along with its ban on political and social discussions, the company suspended what it called “paternalistic benefits,” saying “It's none of our business what you do outside of work, and it's not Basecamp's place to encourage certain behaviors—regardless of good intention.”) However, research suggests that when companies ask employees to check their identities at the door, employees often check their values as well. Employees who feel they can be who they really are at work, who feel there is an “overlap” in their home and work identities, are more likely to behave ethically.

 

Put it in Practice

While disagreements need not result in destruction or distraction, good disagreements don't happen all by themselves. Instead, they need the right aim and the right attitude. Instead of banning controversial topics, many companies may benefit more by creating the conditions for productive disagreement by following these steps:

Get Personal

The nineteenth-century priest and polymath John Henry Newman once said that truth "has been upheld in the world not as a system, not by books, not by argument, nor by temporal power, but by [...] personal influence." Contemporary researchers have drawn similar conclusions. A recent study by Emily Kubin and her colleagues pointed out that people rely on facts when attempting to influence others because we believe they will lead others to respect us. However, Kubin and her colleagues found that sharing facts doesn't lead us to respect our political adversaries. They found that where facts failed, personal experiences succeeded.

Although it can be difficult to bring a personal quality to online disagreements, it is not impossible. The digital marketing startup Harmon Brothers recently began asking employees to create a video explaining their views and their reason for sharing before making or commenting on a political post. The company’s CEO, Benton Crane, told the Wall Street Journal, “The policy has almost had the effect of a ban but without the negative baggage that comes along with a ban of people feeling like their voice is being stifled.”

Make no mistake: facts matter. But the point is that we are often in a better frame of mind to consider the facts when we feel a personal connection with the person sharing them.

Have a Clear, Shared Purpose

We often dread and avoid disagreements because we’re sure we're not going to change the other party's mind. But the study of Wikipedia editors shows the flaw in this way of thinking. Winning the argument need not be our goal. We can have a shared goal and a common cause related to the work we are doing. We can work together to make better decisions, to pursue truth, to refine our thinking, and to understand one another better.

The opposite of a shared purpose is self-promotion. When we take a moral stand for the purpose of self-promotion, we are engaging in grandstanding, which has been shown to contribute to polarization and many other negative outcomes. So think twice before rushing to call someone out. (You might trying "calling in" instead.) When you're raising a concern, it's also a smart practice to state your purpose openly and unmistakably, making it clear that you aim to improve and not harm the organization.

Embrace Procedures and Politeness

Often when we speak up about important moral and political issues, we feel tempted to brush aside norms of politeness and civility. But politeness is useful for helping us navigate situations where we or another person may feel that our status or identity is threatened. For this reason, researcher find that when politeness unravels, a conversation has a tendency to derail. The study of Wikipedia editors proves that employees can disagree without being disagreeable. But to do so, they a shared playbook. Sometimes this goes beyond general social practices, like saying, "please" and "thank you." Wikipedia has a long-established, shared set of norms for promoting quality work and resolving conflict. (These guidelines define the value of, for example, citing sources and avoiding conflicts of interest.)

Similarly, the forum Change My View (CMV) on reddit.com, has drawn over one million members by encouraging productive conversations with a clear set of rules of engagement. Researchers have also recently identified a "recipe" you can use to improve your receptiveness during tough conversations.

Practice

It's clear that when it comes to many of our most controversial moral and political issues, the sidelines are disappearing. Many companies and leaders are finding that opting out is not a viable option. While this may mean that occasional failures are inevitable, it also means that there are ample opportunities for growth and humility. As Ian Leslie writes in Conflicted: How Productive Disagreements Lead to Better Outcomes, "Whether it's at work, in a sports team or with your partner, make it normal for everyone to challenge decisions, speak up about doubts and address annoyances. When you're used to tackling the small issues this way, the big ones are less likely to tear you apart."

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