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Volume 15, Issue 10;   March 11, 2015: Historical Debates at Work
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Historical Debates at Work

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One obstacle to high performance in teams is the historical debate — arguing about who said what and when, or who agreed to what and when. Here are suggestions for ending and preventing historical debates.
Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler

Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, who coined the term backfire effect. Of the many phenomena that can contribute to the futility of historical debates at work is the backfire effect. People display behavior consistent with the effect when, given evidence against their beliefs, they reject the evidence and adhere even more strongly to their beliefs. Historical debates at work often consist of exchanges of supposedly factual evidence in support of the advocate's position, and contrary to the opponent's position. Nyhan and Reifler found that this tactic "backfires" in the political context, and later researchers have confirmed their findings in a wide variety of contexts. One can safely conjecture that the backfire effect occurs as well in the context of historical debates at work. The authors' Twitter handles are, respectively, @BrendanNyhan and @JasonReifler. Read their paper, "When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions" in Political Behavior 32 (2): 303-330.

Perhaps you've witnessed destructive collisions between teammates. Destructive collisions can arise from innocent misunderstandings, long-term campaigns to advance careers, spontaneous attacks, or acts of revenge. They can be mildly awkward or intensely damaging. Rarely do they advance the team's work. At best, they slow progress; at worst, they move the team so far from its objectives that success requires redefining the objectives.

Historical debates are one kind of collision in which the issue is who said what, who agreed to what, who decided what, or the like. Historical debates can take place in any medium: face-to-face, email, text, stone tablets, whatever. The exchanges being debated might or might not have been witnessed; there might or might not be a record of the incident or of the exchange. None of that matters.

What does matter is that the past is always debatable. Usually, the debaters' recollections differ; the witnesses' (if any) recollections (if any) differ; and interpretations of any records that might exist likewise differ. The past is always debatable.

Historical debates are difficult to settle. Sadly, many bystanders feel that they aren't involved; the debate concerns only the debaters. These bystanders just, well, stand by, while time, the most precious asset of any team effort, passes.

Other bystanders recognize the damage being done, but feel helpless to resolve the debate. Indeed, they are helpless, or nearly so. These bystanders tend to wait, hoping for a debate fizzle. At best, in meetings, a bystander might intervene to suspend the debate, suggesting, for example, "Can't you take this off line?" The debate might halt for a time, only to arise again later.

Two strategic moves can help teams experiencing repeated historical debates. First, end the debate, permanently, and return to real work. Second, prevent historical debates from arising in the future. Here are two suggestions for accomplishing this.

Identify the pattern
When no When no debate is actually
underway, educate the team
about the historical debate
pattern. Explore its
futility and irrelevance.
debate is actually underway, educate the team about the historical debate pattern. Explore its futility and irrelevance. Identifying the pattern, and naming it, gives the team a verbal and conceptual vocabulary essential for calling out historical debates when they arise. The existence of that vocabulary can deter people from initiating historical debates.
Learn how bystanders can intervene
To end historical debates when they occur, neutral intervention is required. Taking sides usually just intensifies the debate. Instead, bystanders can offer, "Would either of you like to hear how I saw the situation?" Most often, the bystander's view will differ from the views of the debaters. Such offers won't resolve the debates, but they can demonstrate clearly how useless the debates actually are, and that can lead to voluntary suspensions of the exchanges.

When you broach this topic with your team, refrain from using a past debate as an example. That might ignite a historical debate about whether a past debate was a historical debate. Go to top Top  Next issue: Suspense Is Not Your Friend  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

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