Arguments: The Missing Ingredient For Corporate Success

The missing ingredient of success for many firms? It isn’t the ability to innovate, having raving fans, cultivating net promoters, or engaging with customers in social networks (these things are all great to have, and many firms need more of them, but they’re not necessarily missing).

It’s the ability to constructively argue.

Personally, I’ve been accused of being argumentative. What’s important, though, is why I argue. It’s not to prove I’m right and [fill-in-the-blank] is wrong.

It’s because arguing is how I learn. I don’t learn from listening to someone speak. I don’t learn by just reading something. I learn by putting my opinion out there, and having smart people challenge that opinion with their ideas, logic, and evidence. The discussion is what helps me see other sides of the issue and whether or not my beliefs, logic, and evidence hold up.

So if that’s the way I learn, couldn’t it hold to reason that organizations could learn through the same process?

I don’t dispute for a moment that firms need to innovate, cultivate net promoters, etc. But how they go about doing those things isn’t always clear cut. Different people within a firm are bound to have different opinions for how to do accomplish the firm’s goals.

But what good is having an opinion if you don’t feel comfortable expressing it for fear of contradicting a colleague, boss or CEO?

There are a lot of firms who claim to have an open environment where people are encouraged to share their thoughts and opinions.

My take: That’s bullshit, and would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

The reality is that there are very few firms out there that truly have a culture that allows for open conflict and constructive arguments.

I once worked for a firm that had that culture — but only for a short period of time. After some senior management changes were made, I found out the hard way that the culture had changed (as in, I argued a point in a management meeting, and was told afterwards by a trusted colleague that I shouldn’t have said what I did, given the style of the new boss).

There are a lot of reasons why dissenting opinions are stifled. It’s not just ‘bad” reasons like ego, status, and power trips. Sometimes it’s a desire to be respectful and polite. But if these “good” reasons for avoiding arguments prevent a firm from learning — and therefore, making smart management, marketing, and other decisions — then they’re not effective reasons.

In fact, it could be argued that the inability to constructively argue hurts firms.

What happens to employees who don’t aren’t able to effectively share their opinions? Lots of things. They could leave, looking for greener pastures. Or they could become angry. And as the Heath brothers describe in Made To Stick:

“an effect of being angry is that we become more certain of our judgments. When we’re angry, we know we’re right.”

So employees who don’t get to constructively state and argue their case solidify their positions in their minds — whether or not those opinions are right or wrong for their firm. The result: Misalignment.

I think the firms that will succeed in the future will be those that figure out to constructively argue. Which implies that they’ll be effective in getting a broader range of employees to share thoughts and opinions than the number who contribute today.

p.s. If you don’t agree with me, do us all a favor and keep your opinion to yourself.

[You know I was kidding, right?]

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