Can’t We All Just Get Along?

At long last, the finish line of a seemingly interminable U.S. election season is near.

Candidates for the nation’s top job have been jockeying for position since snow was falling nearly two years ago. So when voters across the country head to the polls early next month, we’ll finally be putting an end to what feels like one of the longest presidential campaigns ever.

While it truly has been a long campaign, this round has felt especially drawn out because many believe it has been one of the most contentious and partisan contests in history.

I can’t say with certainty if that’s the case or not, but I doubt it. U.S. political history is liberally peppered with rancor and spite. In 1804, a sitting vice president, Aaron Burr, shot dead his chief political rival, Alexander Hamilton, in a pistol duel. It’s hard to top that one in the annals of partisanship.

That’s not to say that contentions and arguments are always so grim or fruitless. As a good high school debate team captain will tell you, there’s an art to argument and a purpose to dissension. Those of us who are skittish about conflict and keen to avoid confrontation would do well to remember that.

Real and imagined lawsuits, HR’s perceived role as a referee or a noble if misguided tendency to parent the workforce all conspire to put us at risk. We risk not being prepared as a profession to harness the positive effects of argument. Too often, we seek to do away with disagreements by disposing of them. Conciliation and compromise conspire to keep conflict at bay.

That’s the wrong idea. Argument serves a useful purpose, one that talent managers should bear in mind. Argument done right, which if our politicians are an example would lead you to believe is a lost art, airs ideas and differences. It allows people to formulate, grapple with and express their ideas coherently. It gives each of us a chance to present our reasons and the evidence we have to support them. And most importantly, constructive argument opens us up to new possibilities and changes in direction that help determine the best path forward.

That’s not to say that conciliation and compromise are categorically wrong. The argument for argument is a nuanced one. Too little argument leads to groupthink, going along to get along and stagnation. Too much of it, or too much of the wrong type, can lead to indecision, lack of direction and stasis.

Regardless, being skittish about conflict and confrontation undercuts its essential value to our organizations. Our task should be to balance disagreement with resolution, teach others to deploy conflict constructively and find the hidden value in individual differences. We need to learn how to pick the fruit of argument without cutting down the tree and to help our leaders do the same.

It starts with an idea simple in theory but notoriously difficult in practice: listening with the intention to be persuaded. If our minds are already made up, then there is indeed no point in argument. We all know that incredible feeling of frustration that comes from talking to people whose sole goal is to convince us they are right without the slightest bit of openness to the idea that maybe, just possibly, they could be wrong. That’s not argument. It’s a form of bullying.

As talent managers, if we’re not ready for conflict we’re putting ourselves in a compromising position. We put so much time and energy into recruiting and developing a diverse workforce, but when we bring those people of diverse backgrounds, beliefs and opinions together, are we prepared to deal with the consequences? We make innovation a priority, but as a profession do we develop the critical capability among our leaders and ourselves to ignite and manage the creative tension and conflict necessary to its success?

The election season will soon be over, but the opportunity it gives us to learn from our differences remains. There’s little argument about that.