I never thought I would witness a Rock ‘em Sock ‘em battle royale between heavyweight social scientists, but that’s exactly what’s playing out in the media this week. In one corner is Adam Grant, weighing in with a Wharton Professorship, bestselling books, and a regular column in the New York Times. In the other corner is Brené Brown, a formidable opponent with a Professorship at University of Houston, an all-time leading TED talk, her own bestsellers, not to mention a partnership with Oprah. As a psychologist, I’m enthralled by the ideas at play, but for our purposes here, I’m more interested in how this argument is a typical example of the dysfunction so many of you put up with when the powerful, acerbic, blow hard on your team decides to take somebody on.
Quick recap: The first salvo was launched by Grant, whose NYT Op/Ed piece ripped into the current authenticity movement; suggesting that authenticity is only a safe strategy if you’re Oprah. It was quintessential Adam Grant, smart, sharp, unapologetic, and—much like his brilliant take down of the Myers Briggs—not something you’d want to be on the receiving end of.
But of course, someone was on the receiving end. Although his target was the whole movement toward authenticity in the workplace, by citing Brené Brown’s definition of authenticity at the top of the piece, Grant made the attack targeted and personal. As always, his canon fodder is credible psychology research. This time, lacking specific research on authenticity, he had to make the link between authenticity and the psychological concept of self-monitoring. Then he used the research on self-monitoring to defend his position that being authentic costs you jobs, promotions, and pay.
To her credit, Brown stood her ground, publishing an articulate condemnation of Grant’s piece in an open letter on LinkedIn. She questioned his selective and self-serving choice of which parts of her theory to reference. She negated his link between authenticity and self-monitoring. Even more impressively, she didn’t back down from sharing how the dismissive post landed with her as a human being.
What’s Wrong with the Argument?
Adam Grant did exactly what so many powerful people do. He took a single perspective, used definitions and assumptions that suited his purposes, and presented a one-sided, inflammatory argument with little concern about the cost of the attack on its target. His approach to conflict is what I refer to as the “single truth” model.
When you fight for a single truth, you argue as though you’re right and everyone else must be wrong. You assume that the issue is uni-dimensional and bi-polar. In my experience, it’s a tiny minority of team conflicts that fit this black versus white, right versus wrong framework.
Many people, including Brown in this case, get sucked into the Single Truth win-lose scenario. That’s because the aggressor sets it up that way: prove I’m wrong! But that’s a fool’s game. Playing by the aggressor’s rules won’t work.
The alternative is to grant that the aggressor is correct—at least partly. Rather than denying his truth, the secret is to introduce your own. If you admit that the issue is multi-dimensional, there is room for two seemingly opposing or paradoxical ideas to be true at the same time. Solving for what to do in the face of two truths is a much more constructive approach to conflict.
There are multiple opportunities for how to diffuse the single truth-er when he comes at you. I would turn the authenticity debate into a Two Truths discussion.
Define the Terms: One opportunity to have this debate (and any debate) more effectively would be to start with the definitions at play. Grant’s whole article was based on a narrow definition of what authenticity means. While it was expedient for him to invoke the word authenticity (probably helped his Google rankings), all he could muster by way of data was about self-monitoring. The secret in this case is not to question the self-monitoring data but instead to show that authentic people can be both high and low self-monitoring.
If your teammates throw out loaded words, ask them to define what they’re really talking about. If their definition (and their data) only speak to a narrower or different concept, continually use the language that is more accurate. Then insist that the data presented as evidence are pertinent to the issue at hand.
Differentiate “is” and “should be:” Another interesting factor in the authenticity debate is that the data Grant references are about what happens today. But Brown’s body of work is not as much about what exists today in our perverse work world, but more about what could and should be. This is another great opportunity to invoke Two Truths. Truth #1: in today’s world, being too open about your vulnerabilities in a job interview might affect your chances of getting the job. Truth #2: We should work toward an environment where people can be open about their weaknesses during the selection process rather than disguising them.
If the debate on your team is obscuring the difference between what is and what should be, stop and separate the dialogue into two separate streams. It’s another spot to use two truths. “Let’s agree on what we think is happening today and then we can align on where things need to be tomorrow.”
Now, if I’m Brown, I invite Grant to meet up to engage in the authenticity conflict productively. I start the discussion by getting on the same page about definitions, “Here’s where I think we’re on the same page, here’s where my definition of authenticity doesn’t jive with what you were talking about.” Then I ask for his help, “You know the psych research better than I do, what other constructs could we add to get a better transposition of the concept of authenticity?” “When we look at it that way, what other data become available?” Your article presented some compelling facts about the risks of authenticity in some forms and in some circumstances, what advice would you give my readers about when authenticity is advisable or not?”
I would LOVE to be in that room. Two amazing minds having productive conflict about one of the most important questions facing the evolution of work.
That’s what your team should be doing too. Bring the best thinking to solve the most vexing issues facing your business. Not wasting energy defending who’s more right.
One of the perks of being a keynote speaker is you often get the chance to meet these talented people behind the scenes at conferences. For a couple of years now, I have hoped to cross paths with Grant and Brown. Now, I’m even more interested. I want to see if Adam Grant is a professional provocateur with a poison pen but takes a more measured tone in person. And I want to thank Brene Brown for continuing to be a role model of how “vulnerability-embracing” and “ass-kicking” can be adjectives that define the same person. I hope I get the chance.