Making the Space: The power of cognitive diversity

“The beginning of thought is in disagreement — not only with others but also with ourselves.”

— Eric Hoffer


Like many tech founders, Steve Jobs was not an easy person to disagree with. However, as Adam Grant’s Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World recounts, in 1985, Donna Dubinsky risked her career to do just that. The infamously quick-to-anger Jobs wanted to move Apple to a new distribution system that assembled and delivered computers on order rather than keeping inventory. Dubinsky saw that Jobs’ proposed production model wouldn’t work and threatened to quit unless she was given 30 days to draft a counterproposal. In the end, Apple emerged with a new plan to combine a customer service center, and Dubinsky received a promotion.

Whether deciding on a distribution system for the Macintosh or a place for dinner, disagreement slows us down and makes us uncomfortable. Social harmony bias — the tendency to favor harmony, or the status quo, over conflict — only leads to suppressing and dodging the root issue. By confronting problems as they arise, teams can improve individual engagement and group productivity. Disagreement introduces new information — a different solution or unseen perspective. To reach an agreement, parties must consider both perspectives. Forcing teams to consider as many viewpoints as possible broadens understanding of the topic and encourages creativity for a more complete solution.

Disagreements are more than people having different opinions on an issue. Leaders, especially enlightened ones, can view them as opportunities to initiate new analysis on the situation and consider options and map out consequences. With Jobs himself championing the just-in-time production model, it would have been easy for Dubinsky to yield to the Board Director and Founder of Apple. Instead, her counterproposal potentially saved Apple from a critical error.

How can teams leverage the advantages of constructive disagreement?

The responsibility for team leaders is two-fold. First, create an environment where disagreement exists — a diverse team. While people with similar backgrounds, experiences, and personalities are likely to have similar approaches to a problem, a diverse team introduces different perspectives. Team members quick to play devil’s advocate likewise initiate different approaches. Crafting a team diverse in experience allows individuals to make unique contributions rather than rally around the same ideas.

Second, on-paper diversity must be met with the ability to freely express different ideas. Often, the ideas that need to be heard the most are the most likely to be ignored — those coming from women, minorities, or junior and new employees. Employees keep concerns and different ideas quiet to avoid confrontation with people in power. Without the proper infrastructure and culture for sharing, team leaders can have the appearance of agreement while team members withhold concern. Eliminating groupthink and fostering open communication channels builds team trust and encourages constructive disagreement.

Research shows that companies with higher ethnic, racial, and gender diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their industry median. Plainly, companies who commit to diversity and inclusion are more successful. Companies can reap the benefits of disagreement by focusing on driving diversity and inclusion — creating a space for safe disagreement and training employees and managers to leave room for different perspectives in the decision-making process.