Our fear of getting too close to the ledge prevents us from unleashing our true team creativity. Here is why, and what you can do about it.
You enter a meeting. Somebody suggests something. You know it's one of the stupidest things you've ever heard, yet you find yourself instinctively saying "that's a great idea," knowing you would do nothing about it. Once again, you fell prey to your sense of self-preservation and, moreover, to the political correctness so pervasive in Corporate America.
One day I sat in a bagel shop with a friend. Two young men were arguing at another table, using their "outside voice." In fact, they were so loud that people around them started moving away. Other restaurant patrons, not understanding a word of the conversation (which was held in Hebrew), seemed to be expecting imminent violence between the two. However, since I speak Hebrew, I knew that they were passionately arguing an issue. This was not personal. This was purely professional, and while loud--it was not going to lead to conflict. In fact, I'm pretty sure they might have had a beer together later that evening. Mostly because they said they would...
I rarely see two Americans debate a topic with that level of intensity and passion without it becoming personal. Why?
To understand that, I must start with describing the 5 stages of an argument.
Stage 1: Holding different positions.
The first stage is having two or more people holding different positions. However, at this point they are keeping their opinions to themselves. There is no communication whatsoever. The important topics may not be discussed in a meeting. Meetings may end up completely unproductive and not addressing the real issues.
Stage 2: The Politically Correct discussion.
The second stage is to actually discuss the issue, but avoid any passionate debate. Remove emotions, bias, and any inclination to persuade the other side from the discussion. You will hear a lot of "that's a great idea!" in the meeting, but also a lot of "do you believe what he said in that meeting???" outside. "There is no such thing as a stupid question," right? Well, actually, there is. But that's what we promise in a meeting. We don't really try to convince anyone. We just want to bring issues up and leave the meeting unharmed.
Stage 3: Passionate debate of issues.
The third stage is when you really argue your position. You are passionate about it, but yet you listen to the other person with intent. You want to convince the other person with the strength of your positions, but you are willing to hear about their weaknesses as well. At the same time, as you openly listen to the other person's positions, pointing out their flaws, you are also willing to accept those as good ideas.
Stage 4: Personal, emotional conflict.
Unfortunately, a passionate debate can quickly turn into a personal conflict once emotions get in the way. Now, instead of the willingness to accept that there may be flaws in our position, we become defensive and see every criticism as a personal attack. No longer is your idea stupid--you are stupid! And the more we see everything as personal attacks, the more defensive we become, and since the best defense is a good offense--we attack back. The person, not the idea. We are also less likely to see flaws in our positions, or to possibly see the positives in the other person's ideas. Clearly, the debate is unproductive at this point.
Stage 5: Consequences.
Once the debate becomes a personal and emotional conflict, there is a short distance between that and consequences. Those can be in the form of a complaint to the human resources department, termination of friendships, termination of employment, or even violence and jail time, if not worse.
Where is creativity at its highest?
The highest level of creativity and productivity is clearly in the third stage: the passionate debate of the issue. That's when one idea gives birth to another one, and 1+1=3. The focus is on the goal, and not egos.
If the passionate debate is so creative and productive, why don't we always conduct discussions that way? Well, because there is a virtual ledge between debate and conflict. One small mistake, one small misplaced word, and professional debate becomes personal conflict. Everything might have been fine until you said one word that pushed my buttons. And that's it.
So we want to stay away from that ledge for three reasons. One is that we don't trust ourselves (and our debate partner) to keep a passionate debate as such, without letting it turn into a personal conflict. Second, because we hate that terribly unpleasant feeling of conflict, not to mention the natural consequences of it, whatever they are. Finally, we are pushed away from conflict by company political correctness policies, and its fear of liability for the negative consequences of conflict.
But when we stay away from the ledge, we stay far enough to be safe. We don't stay at stage 3 (debate), but actually go back to stage 2 (politically correct discussion) or even stage 1 (keep your opinions to yourself!).
To be creative, you have to get close to the ledge without falling off of it. The only feeling that will let you get close is safety. Specifically, the safety in the relationships with the other person. "Safety in relationship" is the definition of--
Trust. When you need to be creative as a team, do it with people you trust. You will feel the safety in relationships that will allow you to get close to the ledge, hold a passionate issue debate, without falling off into personal, emotional conflict. Oh, and when someone says "I have a potentially stupid idea," instead of telling them "there is no such thing as a stupid idea" (you can't make that promise), tell them "say it! what's the worst that can happen?"
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