May 29, 2014

At the Gazelles FORTUNE Leadership Summit this May, I heard Margaret Heffernan speak and her presentation prompted me to watch her recent TED talk “Dare to Disagree”. Heffernan, an entrepreneur and international businesswoman, delivered a fascinating piece about conflict and its ability to cause great change – when channeled the right way.

She shared a story about Dr. Alice Stewart, who set out to evaluate prenatal x-rays as a cause of cancer in children in the 1950s (which Stewart did, but it took UK and US medical authorities nearly 25 years to act on her findings). Stewart engaged a research partner to help her – by attempting to prove her wrong. That sounds unusual but it was a highly effective way to support her research. Her partner’s job was to create conflict around her theories – because “by not being able to prove she was wrong, he gave her the confidence to know she was right” and to move forward.

This example helps us understand that the most effective partners are thoughtful, thought-provoking collaborators who challenge us and aren’t “echo chambers,” as Heffernan says.

Stewart and her partner were actually “good” at conflict. They understood it as a method for improvement and for change. Heffernan says “openness alone can’t drive change.” And she’s right – “constructive conflict… not the contentious kind, but rather, the constructive, growth-focused kind” helps us learn more, work harder and succeed faster.

Seeking out this kind of conflict and this type of partnership requires tremendous candor. We must be candid with ourselves in what will make a difference and we must ask for and be receptive to candor from those around us who present a different perspective. Heffernan reminds us that we must actively seek out that different perspective – invite people from different backgrounds with unfamiliar experiences and new approaches for solving problems to the table. And then we must engage with them – that is, practice candor in our relationships and be prepared to consider a fresh perspective.

This collaborative partnership with people who are different from us presents the type of constructive conflict that paves the way for important change.

To view Heffernan’s TED talk, click here.