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Conflict and Decision-Making

Updated: Jun 10, 2019

Nobel Prize in Medicine

For hundreds (maybe thousands) of years, doctors thought that intestinal and gastric ulcers resulted from stress and/or too much stomach acid. So, they tried to cure people with anti-stress behaviors and milk or other anti-acids.

The cures did not work for long; the ulcers kept coming back. But since doctors believed they understood the cause and cure, and they were taught these things in medical school, they continued to practice what they knew and believed. This was the “Standard of Practice.”

Conflict: Rejecting the Status Quo

In the 1980’s Barry Marshall and Robin Warren discovered that the Helicobacter Pylori bacteria were the cause of 70 to 80 percent of intestinal and gastric ulcers. However, the medical community stood by its dogma: ulcers were products of lifestyle and diet.

Meanwhile, patients struggled with their ulcers and some died. Marshall was so convinced of the cause and effect relationship that he infected himself with H Pylori so that he could see and document the experience of using antibiotics to cure himself. By some, Marshall and Warren were ridiculed. Others thought they were self-promoting grandstanders. Many were not sure what to think, but they were not willing to change their treatment until some authoritative body changed the Standard of Practice.

In 1995 a study revealed that 90 percent of intestinal and gastric ulcer sufferers did not know that bacteria was the cause of their ulcer. Their treatment had not changed. Only about 5 percent of ulcer patients were receiving antibiotic treatments. In 1997 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC,) academia, industry and others launched a campaign to educate and change thinking about and treatment of ulcers.

In 2005 the Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded to Marshall and Warren. Their perseverance, courage, and their reasoned approach to the conflict inherent in bucking the system resulted in saving untold lives and preventing the miserable results of the previous accepted methods.

Conflict can be productive

Conflict in the workplace isn’t going away: nor should it. Oddly enough, the processes involved in creating and resolving conflict are the lifeblood of innovation, creativity, and process improvement. Yes, so these are productive conflicts. What we dislike are those unproductive conflicts that simply absorb time, energy, and cause stress but don’t go anywhere useful.

Winners Or Losers?

Could a big piece of the answer be in how we approach the decision-making aspects of conflict? In our workshops, participants have discussed their organization dogmas involved in conflict and decision-making. To show them alternative processes, we have shown them how they might apply the work of David A. Garvin and Michael A. Roberto in their terrific Harvard Business Review article (2001) entitled What You Don’t Know About Making Decisions. Their research showed that the prevalent approach to decision-making is a set of processes they called Advocacy. Participants see themselves embroiled in a contest in which the win by persuasion and lobbying. They usually downplay any weaknesses in their approach and defend their positions. They argue against opponents whom they typically see as the losers of the process.

Garvin and Roberto labeled another decision-making approach as Inquiry. They were persuaded that superior decision-makers use this approach. Rather than a contest, the decision was seen as an outcome of collaborative problem solving where there were no winners or losers. The intention behind this approach is to use testing and evaluation methods instead of one-sided persuasion and lobbying. Instead of participating as spokespeople (advocates) for one best way to proceed, participants are lead to see themselves as critical thinkers who strive to create balanced arguments and remain open to alternatives. They accept and value constructive criticism rather than defend themselves and downplay challenges.

Your first decision-making consideration should be the meta-decision, that is, how should this decision be made and by whom. But all too often, we jump to solving the problem with recommendations. We’re in a hurry to fix something and move on. However, as Garvin and Roberto learned, speed at this point can be harmful. Speed appears to favor the Advocacy approach. Inquiry seems to be slower. But the opposite is true. High quality execution of a solution and working efficiently through the process work much faster with the Inquiry approach.

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