Humans under Management conference 2021

‘Harnessing the Creative Power of Conflict’

Steve Hennessy – Chartered Financial Planner

I was recently invited to talk at the Humans Under Management conference, at the Royal College of Physicians in London. The subject of the talk was “Harnessing the Creative Power of Conflict.”

HUM 2021

Having never been, thankfully, even close to a warzone and possessing no martial arts credentials, this might seem like an odd topic for a financial planner to talk about, but conflict and disagreement are a somewhat inevitable feature of the work I undertake when working with clients on divorce. Moreover, I have taken a particular interest in this subject over the last few years for a variety of personal reasons.

As a young boy, I perhaps understandably but erroneously came to associate conflict and disagreement with the threat of violence. This led me to avoid workplace friction at any cost, in the mistaken belief that my physical and emotional reactions to such triggers were, at best, unhelpful and at worst, dangerous.

In the early part of my career especially, I struggled a great deal in meetings where disagreements were taking place, and I couldn’t understand why. I used to stutter when asserting my opinions – no matter how confident I felt about them – and so developed a strategy, almost unthinkingly, to just nod along and go with the consensus, no matter what I actually thought.

As I matured, I came to realise that this approach was disingenuous and dishonest, and helping neither me nor the people around me. Disagreeing productively is one of the most important features of being a member of a team. We just have to know how to do it well, by which I mean provide a space in which disagreement is seen as normal, productive, and safe.

A whole host of academic research has gone into this area over the past few decades. In 2017, Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber published their book The Enigma of Reason in which they argue that Reason is a social skill, and that too often our cultural veneration of the individual thinker prevents us from seeing all the insight and good ideas that naturally flow from a collective disagreement.

This phenomenon manifests itself in several ways in our modern world, not least online. Wikipedia pages tend to be far more engaging and comprehensive when they are edited by several teams who strongly disagree with each other, as compared to pages written by teams that share the same views.

We can all agree that argument for the sake of argument is not helpful, and passive aggressive personality contests are toxic to be around, but many modern workplaces put far too much emphasis on consensus and agreement. A ‘no idea is a bad idea’ mentality tends to prevail, when in fact adopting a ‘that idea is a bad idea, and this is why I think so…’ approach would be more helpful to the group and need not be remotely negative for all involved.

Here are a few principles I have learned form my reading around this subject:

  • Senior managers should seek to cultivate a culture of humility and curiosity that ensures that everybody in the team knows that any one person can be in error – every one of us is a bag of prejudices and behavioural biases – but that this is precisely what helps group get it right.
  • Senior members of a team should know that being authentic and vulnerable around others is a real strength and will encourage better group dynamics.
  • Open disagreement actually lowers anxiety in others that they will be judged for being wrong. This encourages diverse opinions which is good for the group.
  • Focusing on what scholars call “task conflict” rather than “relationship conflict” will ensure that people can engage passionately in an environment of trust and respect.
  • Be ready to change your mind – no matter what the source of new information or insight
  • Fundamentally – as always – this comes down to communicating well. Never send a text or an email if a face to face is better. So much of our intent is discerned by body language, voice pitch and tone, volume, pupil dilation and so on…. Whatsapp doesn’t come close to being good enough if the subject is contentious!
  • Be yourself. Bring your whole, biased, vulnerable self to an argument, and be passionate, but separate yourself from the argument.