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Building a Culture of Healthy Disagreement

Building a Culture of Healthy Disagreement

One of the things that characterizes a high-performing team is the ability to withstand and harness the value that lies in healthy disagreement. A few weeks ago, my TED talk was released, where I spoke about The Surprising Power of Constructive Conflict. It’s definitely worth 11:33 of your time to watch this.

In the absence of constructive conflict, you run the risk of creating a sick culture, where passive aggressive behavior drives all the conflict underground, into quiet corners, where people undermine each other behind their backs.

In Ep.31 I took a look at the sick culture that allowed the biotech company, Theranos, to maintain the charade for as long as it did, before finally collapsing under the weight of a massive fraud, perpetuated by its founder, Elizabeth Holmes.

Theranos created a culture of blind obedience, driven largely by a CEO and COO, who believed that their employees needed to be loyal, above all else. 

In my book, loyalty means fearlessly telling the truth to the people above you, no matter what. But to them, it meant bowing to their authority and not challenging them in any way… particularly if they had bad or inconvenient news to deliver.

What started with a bold and compelling vision–To Revolutionize Health Care–ended up in criminal fraud convictions, investors with empty pockets, and incalculable damage to many of the patients who used the Theranos blood-testing service.

Once you start manipulating the relationship between truth and loyalty, it’s the thin edge of the wedge! And in the absence of any pushback or challenge, you end up in an echo chamber, where the only possible outcome is that you start believing your own bullsh!t…

I can hear you all saying, “I get that, Marty… but I would never do that”…

Well, don’t be so certain… I’ve seen many leaders who are otherwise decent people, create a culture of compliance, silence, and conformity.

A prerequisite for a healthy culture is the leader’s ability to invite respectful but robust challenge, and to bring out differing viewpoints, perspectives, and opinions. Instead of inviting constructive challenge, we often shut it down inadvertently.

How do we do this? Well, we shoot the messenger (metaphorically speaking). We can do this in any number of ways, some more subtle than others:

  • We can do it by getting angry
  • By being dismissive of someone’s opinion
  • By not listening actively and carefully
  • By not demonstrating an ability or willingness to change our viewpoint, in light of better information
  • By rewarding people who suck up to us

You need all your people, especially your leaders, to feel as though their ideas and viewpoints are not just accepted, they’re expected 

If you do nothing else with this information, I’d really encourage you to have a good think about whether you’re the type of leader who shoots the messenger, or whether you’re the type of leader who encourages the robust challenge that leads to high performance.

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