Santorum’s Test, and Why Conflict is Good

Rick SantorumRick Santorum, as most people now know after his surprisingly strong finish in the Iowa caucuses, is one of the of candidates seeking the Republican presidential nomination. Recently, Santorum responded to a question about who he’d place in key administration roles and made a comment that so far has received little attention:

I had actually a test that I would give people that would come into the office to find out what their thinking was, how they saw the world on a variety of different subjects. I wanted people who worked for me who shared the same values structure that I do. [via CNN.]

At first glance, this hardly seems controversial – what manager wouldn’t want like-minded individuals working for him. I’ve seen businesses fail because key managers weren’t on the same page as the CEO. Strategies that were critical to the company’s future weren’t implemented, or were executed in such a half-hearted manner that they were ineffective. Building a team with a common vision only makes sense, right?

The neuro-problem with like-minded management

Being surrounded by people who hold similar opinions may be fine for executing pre-determined policies, but experience shows that it’s a bad way to evaluate complex issues and can lead to decisions that seem irrational in retrospect. “Groupthink” can set in – when the team presses forward in near-total agreement, there’s a tendency for dissent to be stifled. One great example of this at the highest level of government was the “Bay of Pigs” invasion authorized by President Kennedy. The Watergate break-in that brought down President Nixon is another. From a historical perspective, these decisions seem foolish and inexplicable. In each case, though, smart people went down a path because the rest of the group was headed down the same path – nobody stopped and demanded the direction be re-thought.

In Mistakes Were Made (but not by me), Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson look into how smart people make dumb mistakes. Cognitive dissonance is one key factor. Once we hold an opinion or belief, as humans we often cling to it even when evidence points in another direction. The more we act on this belief, the more entrenched it becomes; to deviate from our past behavior, even when presented with new information, triggers cognitive dissonance. They cite extreme examples, like “end of the world” cults who, when the planet still remains after the predicted apocalypse, find new ways to avoid admitting an error. (“Our prayers saved the Earth just in time!”) One unusual departure from this occurred after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Kennedy, instead of justifying the action, admitted that it was a mistake and took personal responsibility for failed invasion. Today, such a thought process, not to mention an admission of error, is exceedingly rare.

The value of conflict

The Mistakes authors quote John Kennedy as saying,

Without debate, without criticism, no Administration and no country can succeed — and no republic can survive.

As documented in Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Lincoln steered the nation through its most perilous years by appointing political rivals to Cabinet positions. Beyond being a shrewd political move, this strategy reduced the possibility of group consensus forming before an issue had been adequately debated. Lincoln was more likely to be exposed to both sides of controversial issues and make better decisions.

Not just Santorum

Today, a concept of building multiple and conflicting viewpoints into one’s team seems quaint. Although I focused on Santorum’s litmus test, I think the same attitude is pervasive among many, if not most, US politicians. I’d be shocked to find that Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid had even one or two conservative thinkers in their inner circle. (If they do, they clearly aren’t paying attention.) Today’s political discussion is about ideas that fit into a sound bite – nuanced discussion that recognizes multiple points of view on complex topics is too complicated and boring. It doesn’t win elections, either, as the most thoughtful Republican candidate, Jon Huntsman, will likely find out. Both parties in Congress pursue their own goals and seek to prevail instead of compromise.

The message not just for Santorum but for President Obama and most other politicians is that surrounding yourself with a like-minded team is how inexplicably dumb mistakes get made. Conflicting voices early in a decision process may slow things down, but ultimately the debate-tested strategy is better and the probability of major error is reduced. Once the powerful forces of self-justification and cognitive dissonance reinforce a belief or strategy, it’s too late to expect rationality to prevail.

Business conflict

Businesses, too, need conflicting views. While a “genius dictator” approach like the late Steve Jobs may seem to be the most successful management structure, most dictatorial managers lack the genius element. When they surround themselves with sycophants, bad strategies go unchallenged and businesses fail. While it’s important that once a direction is set the entire team get behind it, in the strategy phase a little conflict is a good thing.

email

This post was written by:

— who has written 985 posts on Neuromarketing.

Roger Dooley writes and speaks about marketing, and in particular the use of neuroscience and behavioral research to make advertising, marketing, and products better. He is the primary author at Neuromarketing, and founder of Dooley Direct LLC, a marketing consultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

Contact the author

Brainfluence: 100 Ways to Persuade and Convince Consumers with Neuromarketing Get 100 amazing brain-based marketing strategies! Brainfluence is recommended for any size business, even startups and nonprofits!
Guy KawasakiRead this book to learn even more ways to change people's hearts, minds, and actions.   — Guy Kawasaki, author of Enchantment and former chief evangelist of Apple
Brainfluence Info

Leave a Reply