“I just want to be able to talk with my sister again.” said the Chief Marketing Officer. I had asked why he’d signed up for EP’s Workshop Series on developing cultural intelligence. He explained, “We can’t even have a discussion without her calling me a name. It’s always an argument.”

The Problem

When someone doesn’t agree with us, we feel attacked. We can become combative and closed-minded. We find flaws in the other’s point of view. It’s about winning and is short-sighted. Most of the time though, we avoid conflict; we’re just trying to get along with people. Human nature makes us want to feel accepted, liked, and part of a group. As a result, we suppress our ideas and minimize our feelings, especially at work. No one wants to work with a person all day with whom they have a dispute.

This attitude of ‘go-along to get-along’ belittles people’s experience and actually undermines individuals as well as corporate productivity. In fact, two-thirds of the people that take the Intercultural Development Inventory®, an assessment tool that measures an organizations ability to navigate cross-cultural conversations, show up in the stage of Minimization. People and groups in Minimization overemphasize commonalities among people and may lack deeper understanding of people’s cultural differences. In a multi-cultural society like the United States, this impacts both majority and minority people. People of majority culture tend to minimize differences to maintain the status quo and avoid conflict. Whereas, people of minority cultures minimize differences to get along, fit in and keep their jobs.1

Why Disagree?

For more corporate productivity, culturally intelligent innovation explores and capitalizes on differences as much as, if not more than, areas of agreement.2  Gallo (2018) suggests that when well-managed, disagreements provide:

  • Opportunities to Learn and Grow. While not always comfortable, building a team with differing points of view will push you to think more critically. We’ll think through every angle and develop a well-rounded understanding of pros and cons. A culturally intelligent diverse team can give us a better understanding of industry, customers and competition.
  • Better Work Outcomes. When coworkers push one another to continually ask if there is a better approach, the creative friction is likely to lead to new innovations. The place where people feel uncomfortable is where perspectives change; people become open to new ideas and are willing to see things in a new way.
  • Higher Job Satisfaction. When we’re not afraid to constructively disagree at work, we are happier going into the workplace, satisfied with accomplishments, and enjoy interactions with colleagues. When minimization isn’t in play, that daily feeling of ‘walking-on-eggshells’ is eliminated, allowing you to focus on getting work done.3

How to Have Constructive Disagreements

When someone disagrees with us, there is an assumption of malign motives or that the other side it totally wrong. Rather than speculate on motivations and intentions, seek to learn why they think what they think. Be open-minded and curious. Three tips to encourage one-to-one dialogue:

  • Use language that encourages ongoing conversation: “That’s an interesting point. I hadn’t thought of that before. What do you think about…”?
  • Make sure you understand what the speaker is saying: “What I understand you’re saying is…”
  • Ask permission to offer a different point of view: “May I offer a different perspective?”

How to Gather Ideas from Every Team Member

Critical to corporate innovation is ensuring everyone’s voices are heard and making it safe to propose novel ideas in meetings. When a person feels comfortable speaking up and, “at least one member of a team has traits in common with the end user, the entire team better understands that user. A team with a member who shares a client’s ethnicity is 152% likelier than another team to understand that client.”4

Rather than outcomes, culturally intelligent meetings are about process. To encourage every team member to participate in a way that is comfortable for them:

  • Ask participants to write down as many ideas as possible about the topic before the meeting. They can do this individually or in small groups, depending on their cultural style. And with advance warning, team members are likely to have more thoughtful input.2
  • Assign one member of the meeting the role of “process leader” to curb dominance of any individual. Have them invite participation from those who are more silent and interrupt those talking on behalf of more reserved members hesitant to speak up.5
  • Hold a systematic discussion, whereby:
  1. All the ideas are first shared,
  2. Other options are explored, and then
  3. There is open deliberation.

Encouraging different perspectives offers one of the biggest challenges to and opportunities for innovation in a corporation. Research shows that it’s worth the effort because diversity managed with cultural intelligence can increase profit margins by as much as 43%.

Just before the last Workshop in our series got started, the Chief Marketing Officer came up to me to let me know that he and his sister had their first conversation in years without argument. I asked him what had changed. For just a moment, he hesitated and looked down. Then he looked back up and quietly said, “I realized I didn’t have to be right.” -Amy S. Narishkin, PhD

References

  1. Hammer, M. (2016) Intercultural Development Inventory Resource Guide. Olney, MD: IDI, LLC.
  2. Livermore, D. (2016) Driven by Difference: How Great Companies Fuel Innovation Through Diversity. New York: American Management Association.
  3. Gallo, A. (Jan 23, 2018) “Why We Should Be Disagreeing More at Work.” Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2018/01/why-we-should-be-disagreeing-more-at-work
  4. Hewlett, S., Marshall, M. & Sherbin, L. (December 2013) “How Diversity Can Drive Innovation.” Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2013/12/how-diversity-can-drive-innovation.
  5. Distefano, J & Mazevski, M. (2012) “Creating Value with Diverse Teams in Global Management.” Organizational Dynamics.
  6. Hunt, V., Prince, S., Dixon-Fyle, S. & Yee, L (2017) Delivering Through Diversity. New York: McKinsey & Co.