The Cost of Winning at All Costs

I am a big fan of the Ryder Cup, the biannual golf competition between the United States and Europe, played on one side of the Atlantic or the other. While the U.S. side may be a sentimental favorite, what I always root for is fierce competition that generates great golf. The head-to-head nature of the competition, coupled with varying ways of matching individuals and teams, creates a platform for fierce competition and can often bring out the best of the game from both sides. I wish I could say the same for our political system.

We are so polarized that instead of advocacy and debate to generate new ideas and the best of solutions, we get finger-pointing, accusations and dogmatic diatribe. Nothing grows or develops in the absence of friction. For any change to happen (whether it proves positive or detrimental), some oppositional energy is required. Advocacy and debate are supposed to be a constructive process of developing the best ideas and possibilities, refined and melded into a solution.

But when the debate devolves into finger-pointing and a desperate insistence on being right and even demonizing others who have a different view, we do not see those benefits. We only get the diatribe.

Many of the organizational models that are popular in business literature now stress the importance of constructive conflict. Patrick Lencioni’s developmental model for teams and CEOs as well as his organizational models for clearing silos and politics all depend on having enough trust to foster spirited debate — debate where the outcome is not to find a begrudging middle ground or to beat someone with an opposing point of view into submission, but rather to engender new possibilities. I will have more of that, please.

I recently facilitated a planning meeting for a product development team that was a remarkable model for what can come from disagreement. The team of 14 engineers basically divided into three camps about the best way to solve a challenging technical design issue. Yes, they all advocated for their point of view — but they also all listened to the others.

While it began exactly as our political debates seem to — listening for all the places to disagree or score points — a remarkable thing happened. After each team had expounded on its reasons and responded with its opposing points of view, intellectual curiosity and the desire for an elegant and workable solution became more important than arguing for a particular point of view.

That does not mean there were no disagreements. There were plenty of forceful discussions about standards, materials, processes and a myriad other factors that I as the lowly facilitator who barely remembers his high school algebra could not even follow.

The need to be right, however, gave way to the desperate desire to produce a solution. There was no gallery to play to, no primary to win, no voters to sway — just a desire to find the best solution. Before the end, the team had hit several walls where it could not agree on standards or a design feature, but continued engagement won the day. The team remains nameless because it looks like one outcome of the day’s spirited debate is going to be a patent application.

As much as I would like to wave a finger in the face of most of our politicians, they’re an issue that I’m not even going to try to address. But for managers and leaders in organizations that have a hard time with conflict that does not escalate into war, perhaps there is hope. Somewhere between the desire to avoid conflict at all costs and the need to be right lies a sweet spot in which new ideas and inspiration can take root and grow into productivity and profits.

On another day, I will write here about technique, but the starting place is a long look in the mirror to understand what I am fighting for and the cost of winning at all costs.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, June 2, 2014.