Why Are We So Afraid to Argue, and How Does it Affect Our Creativity?

by Yoram Solomon

This article started on a napkin…

Throughout my Doctoral research of the factors affecting creativity in organizations, I found three focus areas: the organizational level climate, the team level dynamics, and the individual level context. Specifically, two of the factors that were shown to have strong effect on creativity at the team level were the ability to conduct open debate (showing a positive effect), and personal conflict between team members (showing, as one would expect, a negative effect). Several assessment instruments/surveys were developed to measure those factors (among others), including Dr. Goran Ekvall’s Situational Outlook Questionnaire (SOQ), Dr. Teresa Amabile’s (and the Center for Creative Leadership’s) KEYS, and Dr. Neil Anderson and Dr. Michael A. West’s Team Climate Inventory (TCI). These survey tools measure the presence of those factors, among others, as a predictor of the expected level of creativity in the organization.

The two terms, debate and conflict, seem almost synonymous. How could they have such an opposite effect on creativity and productivity? To understand this we must first turn to the dictionary definition of both words.

Debate: “a discussion, as of a public question in an assembly, involving opposing viewpoints”;

Conflict: “incompatibility or interference, as of one idea, desire, event, or activity with another; discord of action, feeling, or effect; antagonism or opposition, as of interests or principles; a fight, battle, or struggle, especially a prolonged struggle; strife.”

Dr. Ekvall defined debate as “the occurrence of encounters and clashes between viewpoints, ideas, and differing experiences and knowledge” and conflict as “the presence of personal and emotional tensions (in contrast to conflicts between ideas) in the organization.”

Both terms have a common starting point: having opposing opinions held by different people. However, it appears that conflict seems stronger than a debate, has a personal nature, and involves emotions. As a result, my distinction between them is: debate is issue-based, while conflict is personal and emotional.

Why does debate have a positive impact on creativity? Because during an issue-based debate that is not personal or emotional we learn what’s wrong in our position. We benefit from different perspectives that are brought by the diversity of experiences, knowledge, and backgrounds of team members. Then we take what we hear and make our original idea better. Why does conflict hamper creativity? Because it brings emotions to play, it gets us entrenched in our own positions, and it causes us to ignore opposing opinions. Think of it as the difference between “your argument is wrong” and “you are wrong”.

One day I sat at a bagel shop with a friend. Two young men were sitting at another table, arguing while using their “outside voice”. In fact, they were so loud that people around them started moving away from them, creating a clearance that you would only see in a Dolphin show. Other restaurant patrons, not understanding a word of the conversation (which was held in Hebrew), seemed to be expecting imminent violence between the two. However, since I do understand Hebrew, I knew that they were passionately (very…) arguing an issue. This was not personal. This was purely professional, and while loud—it was not going to lead to personal conflict. In fact, I’m pretty sure that they had a beer together that evening.

I rarely observe two Americans debate a topic with that level of intensity and passion without it becoming personal. Why?

In my opinion, there is a continuum that begins with simply holding opposite opinions on one extreme, through conducting a debate, through a personal conflict, to maybe violence or other organizational consequences (such as HR complaint, or even termination) on the opposite extreme. There is distance between each two steps along this continuum. We can move from holding opposite opinions to debating them simply by starting to talk. We can move from having a personal conflict to severe consequences through a complaint with the HR department or through violence. However, there is still distance between having an issue-based debate and having a personal and emotional conflict, but we are simply too afraid to cross that distance, due to the emotions and consequences (potentially) associated with personal conflict.

A second reason is the Political Correctness and potential liability that we fear so much in our culture. We are afraid that if we say “the wrong thing” we would open ourselves (or our company) to liability. We became a litigious society. Say the wrong thing, and you get sued. How many times did you enter a meeting in which everything was discussed except for the big “elephant in the room?” Yet once the meeting was over, participants left the room without reaching a real agreement, and told others how they disagree with the outcome?

So because of our fear of the consequences and liability we decided to stay on the other side of the debate. The side in which we do not passionately argue a position. The side in which we would rather agree with each other inside the meeting, and come out of the meeting not at the same mind, telling others that we really disagree. As a result, we do not benefit from opinions opposite to our own. We fail to see the flaws in our positions, and we fail to make them better.

The value of debate is in bringing opposing opinions. To get that value we have to: (1) listen with intent, (2) speak with respect, (3) communicate clearly, and (4) keep an open mind to the possibility that, heaven forbid, we might be wrong.

As a facilitator of high-power teams, I use ground rules at the beginning of every meeting. Those typically include: (1) in this debate, we are all equal; (2) nobody gets to monopolize the discussion; (3) nobody gets to sit quietly and merely observe; (4) nothing is personal; (5) what happens here stays here; (6) not everybody has to agree to reach consensus, but everybody has to be heard; (7) we don’t leave the discussion without reaching a conclusion; and (8) once we made a decision–we all support it outside this meeting.

Our fear of crossing the “demilitarized zone” between debate and conflict adversely affects our creativity and productivity as a team. We even assigned a negative definition to the word “argument” as we use it in our language. However, if we stated (and stuck to) ground rules for discussion–we could hold a productive issue-based debate, strengthen our positions, increase our creativity, and reach better results. We have to stop being afraid of debate!

image credit: Yoram Solomon

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Four Rules to Snap Judge a New VentureDr. Yoram Solomon is a VP of Corporate Strategy, General Manager, Inventor and Author. He has a Ph.D. in Organization and Management, an MBA and LLB. Yoram is a professor of Technology and Industry Forecasting at the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, UT Graduate School of Management; is active in regional innovation and technology commercialization; and is also a speaker and author on predicting the technology future and identifying opportunities for market disruption.

7 comments

  1. Good article for those afraid to do what you’re suggesting. I should know, I am certainly not one of them!

  2. Good for you! And for your company! I have to admit that there were times when I argued (as I’m proposing), but the other side to the argument really didn’t see it in such a favorable light. He took it as a personal attack on him, no matter how much I tried to explain that I’m arguing the ISSUE.

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