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Choiceology: Season 8 Episode 5

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How can you leverage constructive conflict without feeling like disagreements are personal?

Most of us would prefer to avoid an argument at work or at home. But there are times when arguments—at least when they’re civil—can help surface important information for decision-making.

In this episode of Choiceology with Katy Milkman, we look at situations where certain types of conflict can actually lead to better outcomes.

You’re probably familiar with the story of Orville and Wilbur Wright. The Wright brothers secured their place in history by achieving the world’s first sustained flight of a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in December of 1903. Less well known is the fact that the brothers would often argue intensely with each other over their engineering ideas.

Tom Crouch reveals the family culture of argument and debate inside the Wright home as the brothers were growing up, and he explains how that argumentative streak may have helped them solve a key problem in their quest for powered flight.

Tom D. Crouch is curator emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution and the author of The Bishop’s Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright.

A version of the Wright Brothers story appears in Adam Grant’s new book, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. Adam joins Katy to discuss how you can leverage constructive conflict to arrive at better decisions. He also explains how agreeableness can sometimes hold you back.

Adam Grant is the Saul P. Steinberg Professor of Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He’s also host of the popular TED podcast WorkLife.

Finally, Katy provides advice on how to find the right level of task conflict in order to maximize the creativity and innovation that comes from collaborative problem solving.

Choiceology is an original podcast from Charles Schwab.

If you enjoy the show, please leave a rating or review on Apple Podcasts.

Click to show the transcript

Speaker 1: We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when touched again, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Katy Milkman: Those are the closing lines from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address in 1861. He was appealing to the common bonds that held the Union together as conflict between the north and south threatened to tear the country apart. In the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, author Doris Kearns Goodwin examines the Cabinet that President Lincoln had assembled after his election in 1860. Three of his cabinet members had run against him in a tumultuous campaign for the top job, but Lincoln didn’t cast his competitors aside; he drew them closer. By nominating his rivals to his Cabinet, Lincoln ensured that his policies would be subjected to vigorous debate. He would be forced to contend with deeply held and often opposing ideas. At the same time, he could harness that range of opinion in service of a common goal. The country was on the precipice of civil war, and he argued that he needed a Cabinet made up of the most talented figures, even if they had been political rivals.

They were people who often disagreed with Lincoln, and with each other, but who also represented the best minds to explore all sides of an issue. In this episode, we’ll look at why disagreements can be productive and how conflict can be harnessed to achieve political, scientific, and personal goals. And I’ll talk to author and organizational psychologist Adam Grant about insights from his book Think Again on how to avoid the pitfalls of relationship conflict.

I’m Dr. Katy Milkman, and this is Choiceology, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. It’s a show about the psychology and economics behind our decisions. We bring you true stories involving high-stakes moments, and then we explore the latest research in behavioral science to help you make better judgments and avoid costly mistakes.

Speaker 3: Over the sand hills of the North Carolina coast yesterday near Kitty Hawk, two Ohio men, Orville and Wilbur Wright, proved they could soar through the air in a flying machine of their own construction. The power to steer it and speed it at will.

Katy Milkman: You’re probably familiar with the Wright brothers, Wilbur and Orville, and their famous first powered flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903. But few people know their story as intimately as Tom Crouch.

Tom Crouch: My name is Tom Crouch. I’m a biographer of the Wright brothers. I am, at the moment, a curator emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution.

Katy Milkman: The Wrights were a close-knit family who moved around the United States for their father’s work as a bishop. They settled in Dayton, Ohio, where they ran a bicycle shop.

Tom Crouch: Dayton was one of those wide-awake, lively towns, just fascinated by technology. When you picture Dayton, picture one of those towns, paved streets, tall buildings going up, machine shops, the National Cash Register company. The Barney Cart company was a big deal in Dayton, building fine railroad cars. The Wrights were far from the only cycle shop and builders in Dayton. And it’s calculated that they ran the 14th-largest bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, by 1899.

Katy Milkman: The Wright Cycle Company was the brothers second business together. They first ran a printing shop and had some disagreements about how to best operate the business.

Tom Crouch: They printed cards and stationery and whatever anybody needed. And they were always careful about how they split the work up between the two of them. But at one point there was a disagreement. It wasn’t a knockdown, drag-out kind of thing, but they had argued about the distribution of funds. And what Wilbur did to make things right again was to take the thing to family court. He actually wrote up a legal brief about this argument, and that’s the way they settled that dispute. Which says an awful lot about the Wright family, I think.

Katy Milkman: Disagreements within the Wright family were common. Their father, Bishop Milton Wright, encouraged debate and was known to be quite litigious himself.

Tom Crouch: Yeah, it was an extraordinary dynamic in the Wright family. Bishop Milton Wright, their father, was a bishop in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ and was not a very trusting fellow. He was involved in several major litigations having to deal with church doctrine and the behavior of other people in the church and so on. And when everything was said and done, what you could count on in life was your family.

Katy Milkman: Wilbur was the older, more outgoing brother, comfortable with public speaking. Orville, on the other hand, was more shy and less of a public figure.

Tom Crouch: So they’re quite different, and yet they come to know one another so well that they can mesh. They know one another’s strengths and weaknesses. They know who’s good at what and who’s good at what else.

Katy Milkman: The brothers successfully took advantage of the bicycle craze of the late 1800s, and shortly after, the challenge of human flight captured their attention.

Tom Crouch: By the time you get to the 1890s, engineers from Australia to Europe to America, all over the place, were fiddling around with the idea of how you could make a heavier-than-air flying machine. And they were particularly fascinated by the most successful of those engineers, a fellow named Otto Lilienthal, who was a mechanical engineer running a little foundry and machine shop in Berlin. And like the Wrights, he’d been fascinated by flight since he was a kid, and he had conducted experiments to figure out wing shapes and what it would take to fly and that kind of thing.

So Lilienthal was universally known as the “Flying Man.” And you couldn’t look at those pictures of Lilienthal gliding down a hillside in Germany and doubt that flight was possible. Here’s this guy who’s actually doing it. He was killed in a glider accident in August of 1896. Orville later said there wasn’t a day after that when they didn’t talk about flying, but it’s not until 1898, 1899, that they get really serious about it and take their first steps toward the invention of the airplane.

Katy Milkman: Over the course of a few years, the brothers engineered and tested different kites and gliders and designed a control system for their flying machine. They ventured to Kitty Hawk for the first time in 1900 to test their glider. At Kitty Hawk, the winds were steady, the people were friendly, and sand dunes provided a useful jumping off point. 1902 was a breakthrough year. They achieved control of the glider in the air using a movable rudder design. With that success under their belts, the brothers got to work on a powered airplane. They already had two of the three systems needed to fly a powered airplane: lift and control. Propulsion was the missing ingredient. They needed power from an engine and a way to push or pull the plane forward through the air.

Tom Crouch: The two of them built a small, four-cylinder, internal-combustion engine. Real simple. It wasn’t much, as they say, to write home to mother about. And when this engine turns out 12, 13 horsepower, they say to themselves, “OK, that’s all we need. We’re not building a Roman road here that’s going to be the best in the world. This thing does what our numbers tell us it needs to do.” So the next part of the problem, there has to be a transmission system that will carry the power from the engine to the third parts. It’s when you come to the propeller blades that things really get very difficult.

Katy Milkman: The propeller design was the final sticking point and a major obstacle for the brothers to make a successful powered flight. Rudimentary fans, rotary wings, and aerial screws had existed for some time. But none of those designs were efficient or effective enough to lift a craft as heavy as the Wright Flyer.

Tom Crouch: The problem in designing the propeller was just intellectually really challenging. It’s going to be turning at different speed at every point along its blade, and angling them, and so this was one of the things that the brothers argued about. And they had always argued. Charlie Taylor, the machinist in the bike shop, witnessed those discussions, and I’m quoting now, “‘Both boys had tempers,’ he recalled. ‘They would shout at one another something terrible. I don’t think they really got mad, but they sure got awfully hot.’” And the arguments that he’s talking about there are the ones that have to do with the propeller.

Katy Milkman: The pair debated intensely about the propeller design over a period of several months.

Tom Crouch: Well, this is Orville talking about those arguments: “With the machine moving forward, the air flying backward, the propeller turning sideways, and nothing’s standing still, it seemed impossible to find a starting point from which to trace the various simultaneous reactions. Contemplation of it was confusing. After very long arguments, we often found ourselves in the ludicrous position of each having been converted to the other side with no more agreement than when the discussion began.”

Katy Milkman: Those arguments would sometimes turn heated, culminating one evening in an intense shouting match where each brother tried to argue why they were right and the other was wrong. But after cooling off, the brothers met in the shop the next morning as if nothing had happened. They returned to the technical challenge at hand, this time without all the shouting, and this is when they finally arrived at a breakthrough.

Tom Crouch: Up to this point, airplane people, like Samuel Langley of the Smithsonian, were building really quite primitive propellers that operated like screws going into wood. But the Wrights reasoned that an airplane propeller is not like a screw going into wood. This thing is actually a wing. Only instead of moving forward through the air, it’s rotating through the air, and the lift becomes thrust that’s going to move you through the air. So once they start thinking about the propeller as a wing, they can go back to their wind-tunnel data, and they know how many revolutions per minute the prop’s going to be turning at, and they can pick an appropriate air foil for every point along the span of the blade.

And they make little wooden templates. And having done all of this sophisticated engineering to design the prop, they then use medieval wood-cutting tools to actually manufacture the prop drawknives and so on and so forth. And yet the propellers created by those drawknives and so on are hugely sophisticated. Using two propellers instead of one makes some sense. If you’re only using one propeller, there’s going to be some torque involved. If you’re using two propellers, and they’re counter rotating, they’ll make up for one another. And so you’ll continue going straight forward.

Katy Milkman: That months-long challenge was finally resolved. Two propellers instead of one, each propeller behaving as a rotating wing. And in the end, they landed on these important technical solutions through cool-headed debate, rather than hotheaded arguments. With the propeller design finally resolved, the brothers headed down to Kitty Hawk in December of 1903.

Tom Crouch: Mid-December is not a good season on the Outer Banks. Beginning in the fall, it’s hurricane season. So December 14th, they decide they’re going to try it the first time. And they make the mistake of laying the track down the lower slope of the big Kill Devil Hill. They figured that gives themselves a little head start. Wilbur’s on the airplane and they’re coming downhill. And the weight of the airplane coming down hill is so great that he can’t flip the little switch to let the thing go. So the boys have to push it a few inches back up the track so Wilbur can open and let the rope go. And then they let go, and just whizzbang, it’s up and down. It happened so fast that Wilbur just wasn’t able to get it under control. It just goes up and down, and it hits hard enough on the 14th so that it does some damage to the elevator support. So back to the workshop.

And they have to make some simple repairs. So it’s three days later, December 17th, when they can make the next trial. And it is now really cold on the Outer Banks. It had frozen the night before, and so the little rain puddles in the sand are actually frozen when they get up in the morning. There are actually five people there, plus the Wright brothers, when they’re ready to go. And so Wilbur had had his try on the 14th and fails, so now it’s Orville’s turn. And he gets on the airplane. You have to put a battery up on the wing to start the engine and all this other stuff.

Once you get it started, you have to get that stuff off the airplane. And again, there’s a line holding the airplane in place, the props are turning, and they’re finally ready to go about 10:35. And Orville opens the pelican clip and off he goes. He’s into the air before he gets to the end of the rail and he flies forward about 120 feet in a little over 12 seconds. So I mean, they’re not flying home to Dayton or anything like that, but it’s the first time they’re off the ground, under power. And they make four flights that morning. The one that really blows people away is the fourth one, Wilbur’s flight. He’s in the air, and he moves way down the beach. He’s in the air for 59 seconds, almost a minute, and it’s at that point that they recognize that they’ve achieved sustained flight, and they intend to keep going.

Katy Milkman: The brothers had done it. After years of testing and debating and more testing and more debating, they achieved the first powered flight on December 17th, 1903. They went on to found the Wright Company and build airplanes for commercial and military use in the USA and Europe.

There are many keys to the success of the Wright brothers: their fastidious documentation of everything, obsessive calculations, and repeated testing. But another key aspect of their success was their ability to debate each other.

Tom Crouch: These are two guys who knew one another so well that they could argue something right down to the ground and not having to worry about terminally offending the other guy. Both of them recognized that they were working toward a common goal, and the best way to get there, the best way to reach a solution, was just to argue about it. It was part of their way of working through these technical problems that, I mean, were just incredibly difficult. They had, after all, puzzled people for millennia. And here were these two guys just butting heads with one another, working their way through these problems. I mean, there are lots of reasons why Wilbur and Orville Wright invented the airplane. Their own innate intellectual gifts. Again, brilliant, intuitive engineers who just set the stage for the 20th century. The total really was greater than the sum of the parts when it came to the Wright brothers.

Katy Milkman: Tom Crouch is curator emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution and author of Bishop’s Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright. You can find a link in the show notes and at schwab.com/podcast.

 

A version of the Wright brothers’ story appears in Adam Grant’s new book, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. In it, Adam has a chapter called “The Good Fight Club,” where he examines conflict. The Wright brothers’ story demonstrates the positive potential of conflict to surface the best solutions. And also the negative potential of conflict when it becomes too personal. I asked Adam to join me to discuss the psychology of constructive conflict. Adam Grant is an organizational psychologist and a colleague of mine at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Hi, Adam—thank you so much for joining me.

Adam Grant: Hey, Katy, glad to be here.

Katy Milkman: Could you explain the concept of constructive conflict?

Adam Grant: OK. Let’s just start, Katy, by saying that I suffer from an affliction, which I think you also are affected by in a lot of your life, which is the personality trait of agreeableness. Which is, I love to get along with other people, and when I first started teaching, one of the most frequent complaints from my students was that I was too nice and too supportive of stupid comments. And I know you’ve gotten that feedback too, although I think we’ve both outgrown a little bit of that over time.

Katy Milkman: Yes.

Adam Grant: But there’s still parts of my life where I really struggle with this. Before the pandemic, on multiple occasions, I was sitting in an Uber, and the driver was blasting air conditioning. I felt like I was in a frozen tundra, and I couldn't bring myself to say, “Would you mind please turning this down?” The conflict was too uncomfortable for me, so I just sat there with my teeth chattering, shivering. And I think the problem that people like us run into is we think about conflict in a way that’s much too simple. We basically think, conflict is disagreement, it’s tension, it’s uncomfortable, it’s emotional, and it’s ultimately bad for relationships. And if you actually look at the science of conflict between people in teams, there’s this great research led by Eddie Jenn, which shows that there are actually different flavors of conflict.

And the two that I found really helpful to contrast are task conflict versus relationship conflict. So relationship conflict is what I hate. It’s when conflict gets emotional and personal. It’s “I hate your guts and I wish you didn’t exist.” And not surprisingly, that is counterproductive if you’re trying to work with another person or even just trying to have a debate or a dialogue on a charged issue. But there’s another kind of conflict that turns out to be potentially productive, and that’s called task conflict. That’s intellectual, not emotional. It’s “We’re debating about different points of view, and we’re actually here to learn from each other.”

And there is consistent evidence that if you can prevent task conflict from spilling over into relationship conflict that you will perform better if you’re in a team that’s willing to surface those disagreements and actually sort them out. You will also be more likely to land at either a creative solution or a new insight that you wouldn’t have come up with before, because you’re actually learning from dissenting views as opposed to just falling into a pattern of groupthink. And so I think there are two skills that we all need to develop. One is to have healthy task conflict, and the second is to prevent it from becoming relationship conflict.

Katy Milkman: Which is hard, as you point out. So out of curiosity, could you talk a little bit about the best practices for fostering task conflict that doesn’t spill into relationship conflict? Because it does sound like walking a tight rope.

Adam Grant: Well, I think one of the most basic ones comes from some research by Corinne Bendersky where, what Corinne did was, she just randomly assigned people to frame their discussions as debates rather than disagreements. And it was much more likely, then, that they had a thoughtful task conflict as opposed to a contentious relationship conflict. Because we have a mental model around what a debate is. We know we’re supposed to take different perspectives. We’re not necessarily going to agree with each other the whole time. And it’s about the ideas. It’s not about the relationship between us or how much I respect you.

And that’s actually something else that Corinne found in some of her other research, which is, it is amazing that if you’re about to sit down with somebody who has a very different point of view from you, if you just open the conversation by saying, “You know what, I respect the fact that you’ve thought carefully about your point of view, or that you have strong convictions. That, to me, is a potential sign of integrity.” The other person, then, is less likely to feel personally attacked when you do disagree. And ironically, a little bit more likely to rethink some of those views because they feel like they’re being treated as a genuine conversation partner who deserves equal status. As opposed to an adversary or somebody whose views don’t really matter.

Katy Milkman: That’s really interesting. So am I right in thinking, if you’re an individual trying to make better decisions, that this might have prescriptions around whose advice you would seek out and how you would approach them to try to gain as much knowledge and insight into the best course of action you might take as possible?

Adam Grant: I hope so. One of the ways that I’ve been rethinking my own collaborations and my network is to say, “OK, we all have a support network.” That’s the group of people who are great at encouraging us and cheerleading for us and motivating us and validating us. But we also need a challenge network, a group of people that we trust to really stretch our thinking and to let us know when we’ve fallen short of our potential. And so one of the things that I did while writing Think Again was, I reached out to some people who have been outstanding members of my challenge network, informally. And I said, “Hey, I don’t know if you know this, but you are one of my best critics. And I know I haven’t always been completely open-minded when you’ve torn my work apart, but here’s how it benefited from it. And I wanted to let you know how much I value it, and I hope you’ll keep doing it.”

And I think that’s been especially helpful with the disagreeable people in my life because disagreeable people enjoy conflict. They have this opposite preference to actually crave some of that tension and friction. And they enjoy a feisty dialogue. And by affirming that as something that I really appreciate, I’ve made it much easier for them to reach out to me and give me the critical feedback that I might not want to hear, but I desperately need to hear. And in turn, because I’m highly agreeable, knowing that they love to play that challenge network role makes me comfortable with stepping out of my usual zone of wanting everybody to get along and really having that debate. And so I think it’s led to a lot more learning for me, and I also hope I’ve gotten better advice from it. And they’ve gotten to express a little bit more of their personalities too in the process.

Katy Milkman: I love that, and I love how easy it will be for people to imitate what you’ve done. So that’s a great takeaway.

Adam Grant: Try it at your own risk.

Katy Milkman: I am nervous. I’m thinking about the people who will be in my challenge network already and starting to sweat, I’ll admit. Adam, this was so great. Thank you for taking the time to talk with me. I really appreciate it.

Adam Grant: Delighted. Thank you for having me, Katy.

Katy Milkman: Adam Grant is the Saul P. Steinberg Professor of Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He’s also host of the popular TED podcast WorkLife. His latest book is Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. I have links to the book and the WorkLife podcast in the show notes and at schwab.com/podcast.

You probably don’t think of financial planning as an area where some constructive debate might be useful, but working with a financial advisor can often help you view market conditions, or your risk tolerance, in a different light and help you set and stay the course with a financial plan. On a recent episode of the Financial Decoder podcast titled “Are You Rationalizing an Investing Mistake?” host Mark Riepe talks with two advisors about that dynamic and how they work to overcome the biases that could lead investors astray. Check it out at schwab.com/financialdecoder or wherever you get your podcasts.

Vigorous debate and what Adam Grant calls task conflict are integral features of many parts of our society. Take our legal system as an example. At its best, it leverages debate between lawyers, judges, and jurors to reach a resolution. But in almost any setting, you can harness the power of constructive conflict to achieve more. Adam wisely suggests that when you have an important decision to make, it can be helpful to try running your preliminary reasoning by a challenge group, friends or colleagues who aren’t invested in the outcome and who often see the world differently than you do. Ask them to try and poke holes in your logic so you can see if it’s flawed and perhaps change your mind. Or you may decide you’re on solid ground, which should bolster your confidence. I should note that, in general, you won’t make great decisions if you’re constantly courting extreme task conflict. Studies of team performance suggest that the ideal amount of task conflict is a moderate level.

Moderate task conflict leads to creativity and innovation, thanks to the collaborative problem solving that ensues when there’s a bit of disagreement on how to proceed and succeed. High levels of task conflict are generally counterproductive. The Wright brothers are an unusual example, likely because of their extreme levels of trust. So when you frame a conversation as a debate, for instance, you might think of a healthy back-and-forth style of a debate rather than a winner-takes-all debate competition. On the flip side, the total absence of task conflict is associated with limited innovation and creativity. When task conflict does arise, handling it agreeably seems to be critical to harnessing its benefits. On a personal level, if you find yourself in a disagreement with someone at home or at work about an important decision, consider framing it as a conversation that provides a chance to learn from a person with a different point of view, rather than an argument. Remind yourself that you’re both dedicated to finding the best solution. This is likely to help you make the most out of your task conflict without letting it spill over into relationship conflict.

You’ve been listening to Choiceology, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. If you’ve enjoyed the show, we’d be really grateful if you’d leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. You can also follow us for free in your favorite podcasting app. And if you want more of the kinds of insights we bring you on Choiceology, about how to improve your decisions, you can order my new book, How to Change: The Science of Getting From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, or sign up for my monthly newsletter, Milkman Delivers, at katymilkman.com/newsletter. Next time, you’ll hear about a lake that disappeared entirely in one day, and I’ll speak with author and decision strategist Annie Duke about the power of negative thinking.

I’m Dr. Katy Milkman. Talk to you soon.

Speaker 6: For important disclosures, see the show notes or visit schwab.com/podcast.

Important Disclosures

All expressions of opinion are subject to change without notice in reaction to shifting market conditions.

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The book How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be is not affiliated with, sponsored by, or endorsed by Charles Schwab & Co., Inc. (CS&Co.). Charles Schwab & Co., Inc. (CS&Co.) has not reviewed the book and makes no representations about its content.

 

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