How often have you observed or participated in a discussion where individuals with opposite viewpoints present an idea or advocate a course of action, but neither side really listens to the other? Probably - and unfortunately - quite often. One of the many problems with this scenario is that not listening means not learning. Good ideas get lost in the din, positions harden, and effective decision making suffers. All you have to do is look at this year's election process to see how this plays out in real life.
Polarization - the phenomenon in groups that causes individuals to believe ideas and support positions that are more extreme than their own initial, individual thoughts - isn't just a problem in politics these days. It also presents challenges in the workplace, whether in the boardroom, the conference room, or the lunchroom - anywhere people hold fast to positions and refuse to consider the merits of another point of view.
The rigid attitudes typical of polarization are detrimental to collaboration and innovative thinking. Insistence on a "right" way to accomplish a task or approach a problem can actually throw up roadblocks to fresh, constructive thinking. In a polarized group, no one is listening, except to their own point of view. Ideas get lost in the heat of discussion or, even worse, employees grow hesitant to express their ideas because no one seems to care. If unchecked, polarization can poison personal relationships at work and jeopardize team dynamics and effectiveness.
We all have a stake in creating an environment where group discussion can foster creative thinking and effective problem solving. Leaders and discussion facilitators, however, have an especially important role to play in making sure employees share and consider a variety of ideas and viewpoints when weighing a decision - and do so in a respectful manner.
Here are a few suggestions to help rewire thinking patterns if you find yourself in a situation where opposing and rigid viewpoints are impeding collaborative decision making:
1. Draw out diverse viewpoints. The first step is to create an environment where individuals are encouraged to express ideas and actively listen to one another - a concept that's easier said than done. Make sure everyone has the opportunity to present their ideas or viewpoints - and be heard. If necessary, ask direct questions to draw people into the discussion and seek their opinion.
2. Encourage critical thinking. While it's imperative that all employees feel comfortable expressing and advocating their viewpoints, it's also important to recognize that the goal of group discussion is to identify the best ideas, not necessarily to reach consensus. Encourage employees to carefully assess and question their own and others' ideas without being antagonistic or defensive. Consider tapping someone to play "devil's advocate" if differing viewpoints are not emerging naturally.
3. Don't tolerate intolerant behavior. Of course, if anyone behaves in ways that undermines respectful discussion and debate, shut down the behavior quickly. Set guidelines ahead of meetings that require respectful discourse and discourage interrupting speakers or dismissing ideas without giving them careful consideration. Don't shy away from calling out anyone who violates these standards, particularly if their actions are perceived as aggressive or disrespectful.
Good ideas are hard to find - and incredibly important to any organization's success. Creating an environment where ideas are freely shared, heard and given careful consideration drives positive results and employee engagement. Those are benefits that are hard to argue with!