When I think about the most generative, productive, and fun teams I’ve ever been on, we were not perfect communicators. We did not always practice ‘appreciative inquiry’ or ‘seek first to understand’, or ‘respectfully disagree’. Sometimes we really had at it – arguing loudly (in the olden days we would have called it shouting), disagreeing directly without any carefully worded phrases about how we can ‘agree to disagree’, but flat out saying ‘you are wrong, I’m right, and here’s why’. That created highly productive tension, where we were motivated to continue the discussion and through our disagreements, find incredibly creative and innovative new ways of thinking and doing.
When I talk to clients about creative tension, they nod and listen carefully (they have been well trained), and then with a wink and a nod say ‘yes, but respectful disagreement, right?’ or ‘managed tension, right?’ To which I want to say ‘wrong’. We have moved so much to moderate positions, to a calm, rational, respectful environment, that there is no room for passion, for the energy that comes from truly arguing with someone. When I look at companies that are struggling with “innovation”, part of what I see is a lack of passionate team members who are committed to being a team, but also to having the normal, “I am human and not always perfect” connections. I’m at the point where when someone gently says to me “I think you must be confused” when what they really mean is that they disagree with me. I look them straight in the eye and say “I might be wrong, but I am not confused.” In other words, don’t be afraid to challenge me, to say that you think I’m wrong. I’d prefer that to someone avoiding confrontation by suggesting that I’m somehow addled in my thinking.
Sometimes the things that stitch teams together the most are those moments of incredible challenge, where someone has had a complete meltdown, and the team needs to figure out how to pull itself together and move on. Those are the moments that form us – not the polite niceness of communication via communications training templates. Think about the best teams you’ve been on – best meaning most productive, innovative, and interesting. Were they always perfect? Were there moments of complete disarray? Were there sometimes very upset people? I’m willing to be there were. Interpersonal distress creates great bonds that tie people together for a lot of reasons.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think we should go to a work environment full of angry, disrespectful people. I’m a fan of appreciative inquiry, crucial conversation templates, and other devices that help us to get our points across in moderated ways. But I also think that we need room to sometimes let things slip, to be a little organic and messy, and to express our passion in less than perfect ways. Not all the time, but at times for sure.
Management folks seem to think there is some terrifyingly slippery slope in this way – that one moment of passion will lead to chaos in the workplace, or tyrant behavior, or mass hysteria. So they punish people who get out of line – sometimes quickly and harshly, rather than investigating what is driving their passion and figuring out how to leverage it to create productive tension. But a calm, moderated workplace produces mostly calm, moderate results, and most companies with whom I work are looking for exuberant results – growth, innovation, market share, etc. That seems incommensurate to me.