Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 15, Issue 10;   March 11, 2015: Historical Debates at Work

Historical Debates at Work

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

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!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenuaaBdeEUJRrDeUGRner@ChacluXNlwKQrgYklhTQoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Conflict Management:

Freeway damage in the 1989 Loma Prieta, California, EarthquakeManaging Pressure: The Unexpected
When projects falter, we expect demands for status and explanations. What's puzzling is how often this happens to projects that aren't in trouble. Here's Part II of a catalog of strategies for managing pressure.
Damage to Purple Loosestrife due to feeding by the galerucella beetleLateral Micromanagement
Lateral micromanagement is the unwelcome intrusion by one co-worker into the responsibilities of another. Far more than run-of-the-mill bossiness, it's often a concerted attempt to gain organizational power and rank, and it is toxic to teams.
Harry Morgan and Henry Fonda in "The Ox-Bow Incident"False Consensus
Most of us believe that our own opinions are widely shared. We overestimate the breadth of consensus about controversial issues. This is the phenomenon of false consensus. It creates trouble in the workplace, but that trouble is often avoidable.
Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1846, in a charcoal portrait by artist Eastman JohnsonA Critique of Criticism: II
To make things better, we criticize, but we often miss the mark. We inflict pain without meaning to, and some of that pain comes back to us. How can we get better outcomes, while reducing the risks of inflicting pain?
Young chickensToxic Conflict in Virtual Teams: Dissociative Anonymity
Toxic conflict in teams disrupts relationships and interferes with (or prevents) accomplishment of the team's goals. It's difficult enough to manage toxic conflict in co-located teams, but in virtual teams, dissociative anonymity causes toxic conflict to be both more easily triggered and more difficult to resolve.

See also Conflict Management, Effective Meetings and Cognitive Biases at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Feeling shameComing December 19: Embarrassment, Shame, and Guilt at Work: Creation
Three feelings are often confused with each other: embarrassment, shame, and guilt. To understand how to cope with these feelings, begin by understanding what different kinds of situations we use when we create these feelings. Available here and by RSS on December 19.
Inside the space station flight control room (FCR-1) in the Johnson Space Center's Mission Control CenterAnd on December 26: Embarrassment, Shame, and Guilt at Work: Coping
Coping effectively with feelings of embarrassment, shame, or guilt is the path to recovering a sense of balance that's the foundation of clear thinking. And thinking clearly at work is important if you want to avoid feeling embarrassment, shame, or guilt. Available here and by RSS on December 26.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenMiYqDLJvjiUdggNDner@ChacRMqtkvRQxNioJpcioCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.