Arguing at work (and why it’s not all that bad)

Jan 11, 2022 by Adam Bai

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This is part of a series on effective cohort-based learning design. Discover more about why cohort-based learning is the latest L&D trend, explore how global companies are driving transformation through cohort-based learning, and dive deeper into three basics of great cohort design, honed over a decade of creating cohort experiences.

Effective cohort-based learning design isn’t just about generating great discussion. It’s also about learning to argue at work effectively.

People tend to talk about how cohort-based experiences provide an opportunity for learners to share their insights, reflect on how program material connects to their work, and explore their peers’ ideas. Sharing and reflection are essential for meaningful learning experiences within digital cohorts, but there’s another aspect to the cohort experience: arguing.

How arguing helps you learn

Arguing (constructively!) is a key part of what makes cohort-based experiences such an effective learning tool. Social disagreement activates our critical faculties, making us more productive and creative. Human reason evolved within highly social contexts, and we’re literally smarter when we engage with other people.

But this highly social wiring has its drawbacks, too. Cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber call human reason a “flawed superpower” capable of both incredible feats and the bias-fueled foibles described in Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s Nobel Prize–winning work. In practice, we often behave less like idealized scientists carefully testing hypotheses and more like––in Kahneman’s words––“machine(s) for jumping to conclusions.”

Structured argument is a great tool for learning to avoid this impulse because it encourages us to reconsider our biases and see patterns and problems from novel perspectives. For leaders, this skill is especially crucial. A wealth of evidence shows that strong organizations are powered by the respectful exchange of different perspectives and opinions. In one example, Stanford business school professor Robert Sutton points to the intense “creative abrasion” between Pixar director Brad Bird and producer Robert Walker, highlighting how the colleagues’ frequent disagreements became an engine of the organization’s success.

Why “well-structured controversies” are good for your organization

Time and again, we’ve seen it’s not just about what you learn; it’s also about how you learn to argue. University of Minnesota psychologist David Johnson and his colleagues describe these opportunities for productive arguing as “well-structured controversies.”

“In well-structured controversies, participants make an initial judgment, present their conclusions to other group members, are challenged with opposing views, grow uncertain about the correctness of their views, actively search for new information, incorporate others' perspectives and reasoning into their thinking, and reach a new set of conclusions. This process significantly increases the quality of decision making and problem solving, relationships, and psychological health.”

The benefits are clear. Yet few scalable digital learning experiences create space for emerging leaders to practice debating ideas. When our clients tell us how difficult it is to develop leadership talent internally, this is one of the most important barriers they cite.

Cohort-based learning: creating space to debate

This lack of opportunity to practice debating ideas is a huge missed opportunity. Learning platforms are the ideal low-risk environment for emerging leaders to hone the skills that will help them guide productive disagreements throughout their careers.

To create this space, learning designers should focus on sequencing “trigger events,” or cues that create the right level of “inner discomfort and complexity” without negatively impacting learners’ sense of psychological safety. These events must also give learners the opportunity to productively work through the resulting tension alongside other group members. In practice, this could look like asking a cohort to debate a situation where a team didn’t consider a new perspective, and subsequently providing an opportunity for learners to workshop solutions.

Cohort-based learning and accountability

As an additional pedagogical bonus, well-formulated and well-positioned prompts also result in strong evidence of what psychologists call the “accountability effect.” This is the tendency of learners to present more carefully prepared ideas when they’ve anticipated group members’ critiques. The former CLO of Ketchum, a global PR firm, put it this way: “You can’t hide or coast by if you know you’ll be held accountable for your ideas within a cohort.”

In short, our ideas become better when we know we’ll need to defend them. At Nomadic, our goal is to make it impossible for learners to succeed by simply clicking through. The “accountability effect” is a powerful motivator to this end.

More principles of effective cohort-based learning

Considering the role of debate in effective learning is just one aspect of creating great cohort-based experiences. To learn more about Nomadic’s cohort-based academies, read more about our approach, or get in touch to request a demo.