Disagreement can lead to harmony, says Charles Handy, both professionally and in our relationships
On our wedding anniversary, after 10 happy years of marriage, my wife and I decided to make a list of all the wonderful things we had in common. Much to our surprise, there weren’t that many. She loved skiing, I found it terrifying; she loved sailing, I found it uncomfortable unless we were becalmed on a warm and sunny day; most importantly, when we took decisions, she relied on her gut instinct as she called it, while I naturally relied on the evidence and logic.
So our discussions were very argumentative. Unfortunately, I discovered that she was almost always right, even though she couldn’t explain why. On the first occasion, we were visited by a man from Lloyds insurance to check that I understood what I was doing when I applied to be a name and that I had pledged a large amount of my assets, including my home, as backing for their insurance bets.
“Don’t trust that man,” my wife said when he left.
“Why not? I thought he was very competent.”
“He wears brown shoes on a weekday with a grey suit – not to be trusted.”
“Why not?” I asked.
She said, “I can’t explain it – that’s your job.”
Well, it turned out she was right. Despite all of this man’s promises, I ended up writing out cheques for tens of thousands of pounds for the next five years.
After that, I tried to work out why her gut instinct had been right. In this case her gut had told her that because the man wore the uniform of a weekend golfer, and not that of an insurance specialist, it was likely he didn’t know what he was talking about.
However, as the years went by, we made a wonderful partnership: with her gut instincts and my evidence and logic, our differences made a big difference to our marriage.
Differences can also make a big difference in the work place. Take Margaret Thatcher and Abraham Lincoln. When Thatcher formed a cabinet, she wanted people who thought the same way she did – “one of us,” as she put it.
That meant she could guarantee a harmonious discussion. So much so, I was told, that she felt able to sum up the discussion before it was started and challenge anyone to disagree with her. That of course led to tyranny, which always ends in disaster – in her case with the Poll Tax decision and the end of her reign.
Lincoln, on the other hand, composed his cabinet from what has been called a team of rivals – people who had opposed him in his run for the presidency or would have liked to. This meant he ended up with a wide range of competencies, which meant that better, more broad-ranging, discussions could be had.
John Kennedy’s two big decisions on Cuba are often cited as examples of why differences make a difference. On the first one, about the invasion of the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy relied on an advisory group made up mainly of the heads of the Services, who unanimously favoured an invasion and were confident it would succeed. It was of course a colossal failure.
The second time round, when Cuban missiles were about to be armed with nuclear warheads by the Russians, his brother Bobby suggested he widen the advisory group to include people other than the Service chiefs. This helped Kennedy to come up with a solution that persuaded the Russians to call back their ships and so avoid a nuclear war.
The “differences” in that advisory group made all the difference, and averted a potential global catastrophe. Just by introducing a little difference. Not a bad outcome.