A Good Fight Clears the Mind: On the Value of Staging a Debate

I always enjoy witnessing a good debate. And I mean the type of debate where one person is given a thesis to defend, while the other person speaks in favour of the anti-thesis. Sometimes – when smart people really get into it – seeing two debaters line up the arguments and create the strongest possible defence can really clarify the pros and cons in my mind and hence make me understand the issue better. 

For example – be it one in a written format – recently my good friend and colleague at the London Business School, Costas Markides, was asked by Business Week to debate the thesis that “happy workers will produce more and do their jobs better”. Harvard’s Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer had the (relatively easy) task of defending the “pro”. I say relatively easy, because the thesis seems intuitively appealing, it is what we’d all like to believe, and they have actually done ample research on the topic.

My poor London Business School colleague was given the hapless task to defend the “con”: “no, happy workers don’t do any better”. Hapless indeed.

In fact, in spite of receiving some hate mail in the process, I think he did a rather good job. I am giving him the assessment “good” because indeed he made me think. He argues that having happy, smiley employees all abound might not necessarily be a good sign, because it might be a signal that something is wrong in your organisation, and you’re perhaps not making the tough but necessary choices.

As said, it made me think, and that can’t be bad. Might we not be dealing with a reversal of cause and effect here? Meaning: well-managed companies will get happy employees, but that does not mean that choosing to make your employees happy as a goal in and of itself will get you a better organisation? At least, it is worth thinking about.

In spite that perhaps to you it might seem a natural thing to have in an academic institution – a good debate – it is actually not easy to organise one in business academia. Most people are simply reluctant to do it – as I found out organising our yearly Ghoshal Conference at the London Business School – and perhaps they are right, because even fewer people are any good at it.

I guess that is because, to a professor, it feels unnatural to adopt and defend just one side of the coin, because we are trained to be nuanced about stuff and examine and see all sides of the argument. It is also true that (the more naïve part of) the audience will start to associate you with that side of the argument, “as if you really meant it”. Many of the comments Costas received from the public were of that nature, i.e. “he is that moronic guy who thinks you should make your employees unhappy”. Which of course is not what he meant at all. Nor was it the purpose of the debate.

Yet, I also think it is difficult to find people willing to debate a business issue because academics are simply afraid to have an opinion. We are not only trained to examine and see all sides of an argument, we are also trained to not believe in something – let alone argue in favour of it – until there is research that produced supportive evidence for it. In fact, if in an academic article you would ever suggest the existence of a certain relationship without presenting evidence, you’d be in for a good bellowing and a firm rejection letter. And perhaps rightly so, because providing evidence and thus real understanding is what research is about.

But, at some point, you also have to take a stand. As a paediatric neurologist once told me, “what I do is part art, part science”. What he meant is that he knew all the research on all medications and treatments, but at the end of the day every patient is unique and he would have to make a judgement call on what exact treatment to prescribe. And doing that requires an opinion.

You don’t hear much opinion coming from the ivory tower in business academia. Which means that the average business school professor does not receive much hate mail. It also means he doesn’t have much of an audience outside of the ivory tower.

2 Comments on “A Good Fight Clears the Mind: On the Value of Staging a Debate”

  1. alex says:

    Great post. I would add that, even inside the Ivory Tower when it comes to grading (and teaching more in general), the average business school professor often prefers not to show a (real) opinion. If he/she happens to show it (for example with extensive and granular feedback or by pushing back useless comments during class time) the chances are that a) the students will beg him/her with hundreds of emails for some additional points (which, for many, is a waste of time) or, more likely, b) this will be reflected negatively in the feedback because the customer… well, the student… is never happy to be told why they are not all superheroes. It would be interesting to discuss more this in relation to what education is (or is supposed to be) and for the future of business schools as well.

  2. ahzz says:

    Personally I think it is all a balancing act of supply and demand (to steal a phrase). Employees want to be happy at their job. If they aren’t then they are very likely to shift employers.

    Businesses want to expend as little as possible on employees to get the best return on their investment. As we all know, hiring a new employee incurs a significant one time cost for training, materials, office space, etc. Some estimates put this as high as an entire quarter of the typical salary.

    As such it behooves the company to keep their employees happy enough to not switch jobs, but not so happy as to be overspending on their “happy factor”.

    It truly is a unique balance for each and ever company and employee. There is no magical formula that a CEO or CFO can employ. In truth, this is where your middle and lower managers show their worth in their ability to reduce churn and complete projects on time with happy employees under them.

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