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Using Constructive Conflict to Drive Change

This article was based on the TEDGlobal Talk, “Dare to Disagree,” by Margaret Heffernan: 


Dr. Alice Stewart

In Oxford in the 1950s, there was a fantastic doctor who was very unusual, named Alice Stewart. At the time, she was the youngest Fellow to be elected to the Royal College of Physicians. She was unusual, not only because female doctors were rare at the time, but also because she continued to work after she got married and had kids.  She even continued her medical work as a single parent after she got divorced.


Margaret Heffernan


Alice was very interested in a new science, the emerging field of epidemiology which is the study of patterns in disease. Alice focused on the rising incidence of childhood cancers. Most disease is correlated with poverty, but in the case of childhood cancers, the children who were dying seemed mostly to come from affluent families. Alice wanted to understand this anomaly.

As her questionnaires started to come back, one thing jumped out with statistical clarity. By a rate of two to one, the children who had died had mothers who had been X-rayed when pregnant. That finding flew in the face of conventional wisdom that X-rays lead to better health.


Openness Alone Cannot Drive Change

Alice Stewart published her preliminary findings in The Lancet in 1956. Despite the excitement about her findings, it was 25 years before medical establishments abandoned the practice of X-raying pregnant women. The data was out there, it was open and freely available, but nobody wanted to know. A child a week was dying, but nothing changed. Openness alone can’t drive change.

For 25 years, Alice Stewart had a very big fight on her hands. So, how did she know that she was right? She worked with a statistician named George Kneale, who said, “My job is to prove Dr. Stewart wrong.” He actively sought disconfirmation by looking at her models and analysing her data differently in order to disprove her. He saw his job as creating conflict around her theories. It was only by not being able to prove that she was wrong, that George could give Alice the confidence she needed to know that she was right.


Collaboration Based on Constructive Conflict

Alice and George are an example of collaboration based on constructive conflict.  This kind of constructive conflict requires that we find people who are different from ourselves. We have to seek out people with different backgrounds, different disciplines, different ways of thinking, and different experiences, and find ways to engage with them. That requires a lot of patience and a lot of energy.

In surveys of European and American executives, fully 85 percent of them acknowledged that they had issues or concerns at work that they were afraid to raise. This means that many organizations can’t think together like Alice and George. It also means that people who run organizations may be going out of their way to try to find the very best people they can, but they are failing to get the best out of them.


Constructive Conflict Is a Skill

Learning constructive conflict takes skill and practice. If we aren’t going to be afraid of conflict, we have to see it as thinking, and then we have to get really good at it. The Delft University of Technology is teaching its students how to accept conflict.  The school requires its Ph.D. students to submit five statements that they’re prepared to defend. It doesn’t matter what the statements are about, what matters is that the candidates are willing and able to stand up to authority. This is great practice in constructive conflict, but limiting it to Ph.D. candidates is far too few people and way too late in life. We need to be teaching these skills to kids and adults at every stage of their development if we want to have thinking organizations and a thinking society.


Conflict Leads to Better Thinking

The fact is that many large catastrophes rarely come from information that is secret or hidden. They come from information that is freely available and out there but that we are willfully blind to, because we want to avoid the conflict that it provokes. However, it’s only when we dare to create conflict that we enable ourselves and the people around us to do the best thinking.

Open information is fantastic and open networks are essential, but the truth won’t set us free until we develop the skills, the habits, the talent, and the moral courage to use it. Openness isn’t the end. It’s the beginning.


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