Growth5 Blog

Friday, February 5, 2010

Cognitive Conflict

Conflict has a bad reputation - some people think of it as only negative.

When I first started investing in startups I used to not push certain points with the company's management to avoid conflict, steering away from an awkward moment or two thinking I might be hurting some one's feelings by simply disagreeing with them. Often one of the youngest people in the room, my upbringing suggested I was being disrespectful. This is no longer a concern, however, as unfortunately I am the elder feeling disrespected now ;-).

As I matured in the space, I quickly realized that a) if some one's feelings are hurt within a professional and courteous debate, that is a problem that exists on their side of the table, I can't own that; and b) I needed to concern myself more with the feelings of fellow shareholders not in the room that had asked me to represent them there and do my best to ensure the company's success and not lose their money.

Nowadays, one of my daily reminders is: "run head first at current and potential problems because history consistently proves that problems don't age well." Provided that the resulting "conflict" is cognitive, we're all better off.

This excellent post at GigaOM covers the fact that there is good conflict (cognitive) and bad conflict (affective) and that good conflict can even be a positive for you physically:
Research shows us that some conflict is good and some conflict is bad. Cognitive, or good conflict, helps companies eliminate groupthink and open up strategic possibilities. That’s because cognitive conflict is characterized by healthy debates about “what” to do and “why” to do it; it thus generates multiple strategic choices and allows us to weigh options. It also helps us think more clearly and broadly about our competition. And from a biological standpoint, it stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, creating a positive emotional state which in turn supercharges our brains. Indeed, cognitive conflict has been shown to increase firm performance and shareholder wealth.

Bad conflict is sometimes termed “affective conflict” and is usually role-based, as it consists of heated arguments about “how” to do something or “who” should be in control of doing it. Unlike good conflict, it’s been found to destroy morale and decrease firm performance. Not only does it stimulate your sympathetic nervous system, kicking off the “fight or flight” syndrome, the chemicals released by your body in the process limit your thought processes, so focus is put on the conflict rather than the opportunity.

Let's endeavour to engage in more cognitive conflict when applicable situations arise. I have started trying to corral conversations that are roaming into the potentially problematic "How" and "Who" territory and bring them back to the more productive "What" and "Why" space. The conversations are far more energy positive, we get to a much better place strategically and as a byproduct we feel better. Who knew.

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