Create Tension, Then Grow from It

Successful organizations have a hierarchy of personnel, but allow input from "top to bottom," which permits a broad flow of ideas.

Tension does not necessarily lead to war, but often to peace and to denouement.
— Nassim Nicholas Taleb

We went there. Despite believing that we knew better, and undeterred by the many recommendations to avoid it, during this past holiday season my family talked politics. We didn’t just mention how we believed the new president might affect our everyday lives and/or the future of our country (good or bad). We pulled out the stops and actually debated (thankfully only for a couple of hours).

I have seven siblings (five brothers and two sisters). Once you add the in-laws and children, we end up with a broad range of political positions. Regardless, we’ve always been relatively reserved when it comes to expressing these views. We know who believes what, and we typically contain our opinionated conversations within groups of like-minded people. But for whatever reason, this was the year to change things up and see what feathers we could ruffle.

During one particular holiday gathering, a couple of the more outspoken of us had started some minor rumblings with opposing thoughts about the results of the presidential election and the character of the two main candidates. At first, this discussion was short-lived. But after the majority of the crowd had gone home and only seven remained, including those two, I somehow stepped out of character and got the dispute back in motion with a simple question.

Although I sincerely wanted an answer to my question, I knew full well that the ensuing discussion was going to create some friction. I really don’t know why I did it. I love my family, and we’re all close. But I have to admit that I actually enjoyed the tension in the room. It seemed healthy. Although we may not have exactly respected each other’s opinions, we respected each person’s right to express those opinions and allowed every opportunity to do so. It gave us the chance to learn from each other, if even only a little bit.

The next day, those of us involved in the late-evening discussion shared an email exchange in which we offered apologies in case anyone felt offended or pushed too far; expressed our love for each other, regardless of our differing viewpoints; and thanked each other for the spirited and out of the ordinary opportunity to learn.

In this election season, no matter which side you were on, right or left (or neither, for that matter), you were likely somewhat bothered that you had a family member or close associate who supported the dreaded “other candidate.” There hasn’t been another election (at least certainly not in my lifetime) that was so polarizing.

The lesson reinforced in my mind during this experience is that we really can have differing opinions and still get along. And not only get along, but continue to thrive. Many people seem to have forgotten this truth, as demonstrated by the extreme emotions displayed following the election results. But for it to work, we need to accept the decision of the majority and move forward with what we have. This country was built on our founding fathers’ ability to recognize differences, debate the ramifications of them, and decide on what’s best for the whole based on the opinions of the majority. The effectiveness of this system has not changed.

Because it works so well, we see similar systems in place in most successful organizations. They certainly have a hierarchy of personnel, but allowing input from, and taking advantage of the knowledge of everyone, “top to bottom,” permits a broad flow of ideas. If we open the door for healthy debate, someone might learn something. And if we understand the opinions of others, we may find it a lot easier to go with the flow when things don’t go our way.

I value highly the ability to swallow one’s pride in the name of things far more important. That concept applies to family unity, as demonstrated in our holiday gathering; it applies to the unity of our country as we move forward and strive for bigger and better things; and it applies to the strength of a business.

In my column next month, I’ll share some thoughts about successful team brainstorming strategies. It once again comes back to valuing the opinions of others.