So this is about strategies and tactics to understand and get past I am right you are wrong type situations and get to better outcomes. Specifically I am going to address this through three vignettes.
But before we start I’d like to ask you to picture a recent example of a disagreement. I’m sure you can all picture a classic moment of disagreement. An entrenched position develops. Voices get raised. People get animated. Interrupt each other, give short, spikey answers.
We’ve all been there, either as protagonist or observer – does it lead to good outcomes?
Here’s a few reasons why it happens – innate human yearning for control from an early age, an inbuilt desire to be right, to “win”, to assert views. A sense of “ego”. Innate desire for relative status – especially in a knowledge world where status can often be measured by being right.
Add to that the difference between Open vs closed mindsets.
Bring in a bit of Overconfidence bias, it’s been shown that senior people, successful people tend to be overconfident, selection process bias to persuasive people with confident views.
A lot of combustible ingredients there! Not a surprise perhaps that these situations occur pretty often – and derail group decision making.
Can we unpack some of these disagreement de-railers and offer thoughts and strategies/tactics for addressing? That’s the aim of this short piece.
Distinction – at least three types of disagreement here …
Type (1) – Thoughtful Disagreement
As an aside, If you haven’t already read it – I recommend a great book on this – Principles by Ray Dalio (founder of Bridgewater, who many of you will have heard of). Really influenced my thinking on this point (and plus is just a fantastic book on life & work). He talks about the concept of being “radically open minded”. A genuine worry that you might not be seeing choices optimally. Suspend your judgement for a second and evaluate something through someone else’s eyes. Agree that you might be wrong.
Some great framing to try and force ourselves to adopt when we find ourselves in this situation “I don’t know much relative to what I need to know”. “help me understand how I may be wrong”. It’s a great framing, but it is hard! And it needs everyone to take that stance, definite role for a facilitator or chair here in promoting that kind of atmosphere. Everyone needs to get a little humble, agree to be as open minded as they possibly can be, and go through that process together of suspending judgement for a second and hold conflicting concepts in the mind for a little while, holding that tension there for a bit without jumping one way or the other (which is a hard thing to do).
A common example of this that we encounter internally is debates of expected returns on asset classes at our investment committee. We tend to have strong views and don’t agree. As you’ll know the number you use does matter for allocation purposes. But clearly it’s something you can debate all day long. You’d be surprised how animated and energetic people can get over the difference between 3% and 4%!
To characterise the argument – Pete might say “I think the expected return on equities ought to be 4% and not a penny less”. But I might say “No, Pete, you are wrong, you’re too overconfident – it should be 3% and not a basis point more”.
There’s a clear clash there and a real risk of “I’m right you are wrong” developing. We have got past this by using some of the strategies described above. What we find if we hold on to both views and pursue the ideas behind them is that Pete is worried that too low a number might lead to excessively high allocations to chase return targets, whereas I fear that too high a number would lead to a false sense of security. Both very valid positions, and by holding the tension there we’ve got to better outcomes, I believe.
Type (2) – The Entrenched Position Holder. Here we’re talking about a situation where one party may be more expert or better informed than the other
Closed mindedness or what psychologists call an “emotional hijack” could be the real enemy here and we need to be on the watch out for those.
So you encounter an entrenched position from someone you suspect probably doesn’t see or understand the full picture. A common example of this we’ve encountered is debates on interest rates and hedging. A proposal is in the process of being rejected because of a logical-sounding but (in your view) flawed argument (“I am against hedging because I think the BoE will raise rates next month”).
In the moment temptation can be very strong to try and “win” through force of logic. But experience suggests trying to meet an entrenched position holder head on in that way doesn’t usually lead to good outcomes, if done too stridently it might even push other neutrals or people biased toward your point of view into the debate in support of them, especially if it looks like they are being patronised.
To help understand the opposing side here, I think it’s really important to say that we all experience mental pain when an event or person comes along to challenge a tightly-held idea. This can be especially so it if reveals a personal weakness on our part. It is especially tough for more closed-minded people to cope with this situation. Being aware of it in ourselves (and using cues as triggers to control behaviour) can help get more open-minded.
But if we’re observing someone else and we are picking up some or all of these cues/traits that emotional hijack or closed-mindedness is coming into play, it calls for some tactics.
Recognise that emotions are powerful in the moment and will almost certainly “hijack” logical thinking (research shows that the flow of blood to areas of the brain is physically hijacked and diverted, so you in the heat of an argument no-one has their full cognitive capabilities on-line).
- Open by receiving the position positively –
“We disagree – that’s great!” or “good challenge” … it shows we have an important issue here that we need to spend time getting to the bottom of. Find out what is really true and
Plus it rewards, encourages, fosters dissenting voices (dissent is often a good thing – if done in the right way).
2. Agree on basics ….
Can we agree we are here to make the best decision we can?
Agree ground rules around process/structure – don’t block each other from speaking. 2 mins each uninterrupted to make case. Then each agree to play back your hearing of the other’s argument, to help internalize and demonstrate that you are listening.
What can we now both agree on?
What is the evidence in front of us? Be evidence based and encourage others to do the same,
Where are we trying to get to – is the goal agreed upon or is that a point of dispute?
What are our constraints – are those agreed on both sides.
A tactic we have found works well is to establish what you might call boundary conditions (“if we were fully funded, would you want to be hedged”).
3. Don’t expect to get a solution straight away
But don’t let the debate put the issue on hold for ever and kicked into “long grass”. Keep open dialogue going
Inject a little humour and levity if at all possible – can lighten the mood and diffuse any potential confrontational atmosphere which can keep things moving along. I’ve seen this done really well by certain board chairs at just the right moment (not detracting from the seriousness of the debate, but a well judged comment can lighten tone and relax people).
Consider compromise stances
Even if we can’t ultimately agree, how do we size the position, is there a timing compromise
Type (3) – the Personality Clash
Needless to say there are a huge variety of personality types, and of course this influences how we behave and react in a business context. I’ve become a big fan of the Deloitte Business Chemistry, and risk type compass is also something we’ve used. There are others (Hogan, Myers Briggs, Five factor, Gallup) They all give different helpful ways of looking at personality and, particularly how it impacts on the interactions we have with others. It helps understand ourselves and others, helps explains a large part of a lot of issues.
Understanding personality characterisations and the traits that arise from how individuals are “wired” helps takes away the individualisation, personalisation of the thing. Gives you a language to depersonalise (“you’re going all guardian on me again – help me here”). It’s a great vehicle for improving one’s own Self awareness.
Let’s take an example here. In the language of the Deloitte business chemistry framework- I’m a driver
hat means I thrive on making progress and getting things done, and can get impatient when I feel like I am getting “bogged down”. I can and do therefore often face objections from guardians who rightly often ask “show me more data or let’s stop for a second and think more deeply about this and what we are trying to do here”. Deep down I share their desire for logic, but I’m also silently screaming “let’s just get this done!”, as I perceive their requests for data or more debate as a “no”. Personality lens gives the option to depersonalise, increase self-awareness and recognise as a classic guardian/driver clash, which is much more helpful in moving forward.
I do see that a bit on trustee boards – often the chair might be a driver type personality, brought in perhaps to move forward and get things done, enact change. Many trustees are likely to take guardian viewpoint (indeed, the word trustee kind of invokes a sense of guardian). Can lead to clash. Also a role for consultant and other advisors in the personality mix. Important to understand.
So, to wrap
I’m right you are wrong situations, arise all the time for a bunch of reasons, but unlikely to lead to good outcomes.
Leave you with one thought: always try and aim for thoughtful disagreement.
Talked about three scenarios and some strategies and tactics to handle/navigate
Two well informed people with a genuine clash of ideas
Dealing with emotional hijack when we have two sides with different levels of expertise
Clashing personality types