By William F. Brandt, Jr.
I believe that debate, where the focus is upon “winning” an argument rather than seeking the “truth,” is overused and overvalued within organizations and society in general. And unfortunately, other forms of discourse, when used to understand the truth and seek a better result, are mostly misunderstood and largely neglected.
For example, in 1991, I attentively watched the television coverage of the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings on the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Of particular interest at the hearings was the testimony of Anita Hill, who had worked for Thomas. When asked in an FBI background interview, she described Thomas’ behaviors, which, if true, could be construed as sexual harassment.
It was the first time that I had actually watched a congressional hearing, and I had assumed that all members of the Committee, both Republicans and Democrats, would want to learn the truth—whether or not Thomas had in fact behaved this way. But actually, none of the Committee members gave this impression. When Hill testified, most members spent the majority of their allotted time pontificating to the cameras rather than asking her questions.
When they spoke, those favoring the nomination framed their comments and questions in a manner that disparaged Hill, while those against the nomination framed theirs in her support. There were other women available who might have shed greater light on this matter, but they were never allowed to testify. By the end of the hearing, the Senate had narrowly confirmed Thomas’ nomination, and I had lost my naiveté in the process…
In retrospect, the Clarence Thomas hearings simply mirrored how people in America typically relate to one another. Most people value having their positions affirmed regardless of their validity and regardless of finding the truth of the matter. This preference is reinforced by our legal system, where the prosecution and the defense each argue the case from their respective sides. They are not expected to seek the truth, but rather to win the case for their clients. While this may be the best way to run a legal system, an over emphasis on asserting one’s position or winning a debate can be devastating for organizations.
Organizations spend the vast majority of their time interacting in “debate,” trying to win their position and relying on their opinions as facts – rather than “seeking the truth” through discussions where they hold their opinions up to scrutiny in order to make better choices.
And organizations certainly spend minimal time hosting more extensive “dialogues” where the members can present different perspectives as a means to discovering a new perspective not anticipated. Dialogue encompasses cooperation, group learning and idea creation, and is particularly useful when the subject matter is complex. By its very nature, dialogue is an attempt to seek the truth.
Think of organizations that have either suffered mightily or failed altogether because they held strict opinions of their environment significantly at variance with reality. An example is the internet industry in the late 1990s. Internet start-up companies assumed that a new economic reality would support ever increasing stock prices and that they could continually sell shares to the public. When this belief proved false and the market crashed, most of these start-ups went bankrupt.
While there are tools to better learn how to effectively use discussion and dialogue, the fundamental choice is one of intent. Do you think you “know the truth,” or do you seek the truth? Is winning more important than knowing, or is knowing more important than winning? While debate may be appropriate in some instances, a basic orientation of “seeking the truth,” – not already knowing it – is a critical advantage for organizations and their members. “Not knowing” is your friend.
William F. Brandt, Jr., is cofounder and former CEO of American Woodmark Corporation—the third largest producer of kitchen cabinets in America. His books include the winner of 22 Book Awards COMPASS—Creating Exceptional Organizations: A Leader’s Guide and COMPASS TOOL KIT, the teaching companion to COMPASS (www.WinterValePress.com ).
Copyright 2015 © William F. Brandt, Jr.