- Successful teams and relationships share a trait most people think is bad: fighting.
- One of the biggest indicators that a relationship is going to end is not arguing — it’s not talking.
- In work environments, the biggest problem many teams face is “organizational silence,” or team members not talking about important issues.
- Successful businesses that rank high in innovation also tend to encourage the airing and clashing of different viewpoints.
- When people or teams don’t express their different viewpoints, it’s worse for business than fighting.
The following is an excerpt from “Dream Teams: Working Together Without Falling Apart” by Shane Snow:
Any science writer who ends up writing about relationships eventually ends up at the Gottman Institute. I was no exception to the cliché when I started digging into the science of Dream Teams.
At their research center in Seattle, Drs. John Gottman and Julie Schwartz Gottman study romantic partnerships and what makes them tick. I found them because of my interest in what makes lovers stop ticking. What causes partners who once thought that they’d be better together to call it quits?
The answer is surprising, but quite simple.
“Interaction patterns, such as disagreement and anger exchanges,” they report, “may not be harmful in the long run.” In fact, conflicts can be “predictive of improvement” in partnership satisfaction over time.
The reason is not because arguing makes us happy. It’s actually because if you’re still arguing, you’re probably still together. There’s potential energy in the rubber band you’re stretching together. If you keep talking long enough — and those arguments don’t spill over into violence — you’re going to eventually work things out.
Indeed, the biggest leading indicator that a marriage is about to end is not, in fact, when couples argue. It’s when they stop talking.
Two experiments help us connect this to our exploration of differences and teamwork.
First, a group of researchers from Harvard, Berkeley, and the University of Minnesota decided that they wanted to know just how much training people to be mindful of demographic diversity helped big companies with lots of employees. So they found 829 businesses that emphasized diversity training and tracked how they fared over a period of thirty one years. In 2007 they published their surprising results. That is, that so-called diversity training programs had “no positive effects in the average workplace.”
In fact, they found “in firms where training is mandatory or emphasizes the threat of lawsuits, training actually has negative effects.” Emphasizing how not to offend people who were different scared employees into disengaging.
Courtesy of Penguin Random House
Then in a 2015 experiment, another group of professors took a group of white men who were applying for an IT job, and separated them into two groups.
Before the job interview, they told half of the men about the great efforts the company they were applying to used to focus on racial diversity. The other half weren’t told anything about that.
The job applicants who’d gotten the diversity message did worse in their job interviews. Their heart rates rose. They were more nervous. They talked less. Talking about race differences made them freeze up.
And this was, according to the professors, “regardless of these men’s political ideology, attitudes toward minority groups, beliefs about the prevalence of discrimination against whites, or beliefs about the fairness of the world.” * †
These two experiments reveal something about human nature. Our most primal reaction when we are put together with people who aren’t like us is precisely the reaction of these test subjects. We tend to freeze. We get nervous about the tension we see coming, so we clam up. Even if we have good intentions toward other people.
A managing director who oversaw demographic diversity at one of the world’s largest banks put it well to me one night over dinner.
‘One of the biggest problems we have is we hire all these different kinds of people and then tell them to fit our way of thinking,’ she told me.
She would soon leave her job to oversee diversity at the world’s other largest bank, where the same thing would happen.
“They have all this potential to add to the culture,” she said. “And you watch them slowly learn to keep quiet.” If you’re different from other people in your group, it’s incredibly easy, and incredibly common, to get nervous and stop speaking up.
I tried to confirm this phenomenon myself. In 2016, I conducted a nationwide survey of employees of a hundred major US corporations. I asked these employees about the differences between themselves and their coworkers and managers — whether they were in the minority or majority in various categories like race, gender, age, experience, education, and geographic background — and then asked various questions aimed at discerning how much they were able to use their different ways of thinking at work.
I then cross-referenced this with data on how innovative their companies were. The upshot of the study shouldn’t surprise us, given what we’ve been talking about.
Businesses that rank high in ‘innovation’ — the ones that grow quickly and produce game-changing products and services — tend to encourage the airing and clashing of diverse viewpoints.
Not just having differences, but speaking up.
The data were persuasive. No matter how demographically diverse, organizations that let their people use their different mental tool kits are going to be more effective at finding new peaks on Problem Mountain. Companies that don’t innovate tend to make people follow a single, “approved” way of thinking. Their different kinds of people keep quiet about their different perspectives and heuristics. They break less ground than companies that encourage everyone to speak out.
Courtesy of Shane Snow
And this, it turns out, was the festering sickness hidden in all those failed mergers we talked about.
In 2011, a group of professors from the University of Athens decided that they wanted to see exactly how people behave after their companies go through a merger. So they found some companies that were merging, met their employees, and put tracking devices on them.
They then sat back and observed where the people went, whom they interacted with, and what they said to one another. Numerous studies already supported the theory that integrating cultures was the most difficult part of a merger. But this was the first time anyone had looked at how much people from different companies actually spoke to one another.
The answer, it turned out, was not much. The professors observed that most mergers did not lead to an increase in fighting, but instead they led to an increase in something they called “organizational silence.” Basically, this is when team members don’t talk about important issues, or at all. Companies that had organizational silence developed a lack of social trust among their employees. And this led to mergers failing to live up to their potential.
Courtesy of Shane Snow
Rather than deal with the discomfort of cognitive friction that comes with everyone’s different perspectives and heuristics, the people inside of most newly merged companies get quiet. And that, it turns out, is worse for business than arguing.
Organizational silence has contributed to some of the most spectacular mistakes in history.
After the infamous Bay of Pigs fiasco — one of the biggest US foreign policy blunders of the twentieth century — several former cabinet members would later admit they regretted not speaking up. President John F. Kennedy’s team stood tacitly by while a gung-ho CIA persuaded the president to secretly land troops in Cuba.
“In the months after the Bay of Pigs,” Kennedy aide Arthur Schlesinger wrote, “I bitterly reproached myself for having kept so silent during those crucial discussions, though my feelings of guilt were tempered by the knowledge that a course of objection would have accomplished little save to gain me a name as a nuisance.”
Imagine that once again you’re the Chris Jung of your team, the person who thinks differently among a group of similar thinkers. How much time does it take before you start holding your tongue rather than keep bringing up ideas that create conflict for the group? Where there’s difference, there’s tension. And where there’s tension, there’s often fear. And fearful people often avoid speaking up.
* They go on to say: “This suggests just how widespread negative responses to diversity may be . . . the responses exist even among those who endorse the tenets of diversity and inclusion.”
† Note how the imprecise language in all of these studies conflates racial diversity with the catchall term “diversity” itself. Someone please go yell at them!
Excerpted from Dream Teams: Working Together Without Falling Apart by Shane Snow, in agreement with Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Shane Snow, 2018.