I was struck by an article in Bits and Pieces magazine about how the Wright brothers fiercely argued over every decision — so much so that acquaintances wondered how they could keep working together.

It is common knowledge that Orville and Wilbur Wright battled doubt, lack of money and gravity on their way to aviation history at Kitty Hawk, N.C. What is not widely known is that they succeeded precisely because they challenged each other.

Mark Eppler, in his book “The Wright Way,” writes that the key to the brothers’ intense arguments was that they were not anger-driven.

As Wilbur Wright put it, “Honest argument is merely a process of mutually picking the beams and motes out of each other’s eyes so both can see clearly.”

Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde supported the Wright brothers’ logic when he said: “The well-bred contradict other people. The wise contradict themselves.”

In other words, it’s fine to change your mind after listening to all sides of an argument. There may be issues you didn’t consider or information that you were unaware of. There may be a better way to deal with a problem that you hadn’t considered.

I’ve always felt that debate or argument is healthy. Whenever I’ve had two employees disagreeing over something, I’ve always tried to listen with an open mind and learn different viewpoints. It can be very helpful in decisionmaking.

One important thing I’ve learned is not to play favorites. You must give both sides a fair hearing. You cannot go into a situation with a predetermined outcome or you will lose your credibility. You must treat everyone and their viewpoint respectfully.

A study at the University of Michigan found that a little arguing now and then is actually good for you, if done for the right reasons. The results showed that when people experience tension with someone else — whether it be a boss, spouse or child — sidestepping confrontation could be bad for their health. Avoiding conflict was associated with more symptoms of physical problems the next day than was actually engaging in an argument. A manager’s job is to provide the experiences that will develop his or her employees’ leadership skills. Experience is the best teacher for leadership development. Chief among them is learning to handle differing opinions.

One strategy might be to put the employee in charge of a work group whose members have strong, widely ranging opinions about how to handle a workplace issue. Tell your employee not to pick a “correct” course of action when opinions conflict, but to lead the group to a consensus that everyone can support.

Another challenge to prepare for is the difficult employee who produces good work but doesn’t interact well with others. Discover what motivates that employee and help him or her channel their talents into better relationships. Reinforce the notion that differing opinions are welcome and even necessary, but need to be respectfully presented.

I read an article about how couples should fight for their relationship, not to win the argument. I think it also applies to the workforce. Every relationship, no matter how happy, suffers its share of conflict and argument. If it’s going to endure, both parties need to know how to fight fair. Follow these rules for arguments:

• Address issues promptly. Don’t let resentments simmer. If something bothers you, bring it up within a reasonable amount of time.

• Treat each other with respect. Refrain from name-calling, accusations and absolutes like “You always” and “You never.” Keep your voices calm and make an effort to really listen to the other person’s point of view. Or as South African cleric Desmond Tutu put it, “Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument.”

• Keep it private. Don’t argue in front of others. If necessary, make an appointment to discuss the issue.

• Don’t let it drag on. Try to set a time limit for resolving the issue. Most arguments shouldn’t last more than 15 minutes.

So, the next time you find yourself in an argument or debate, treat your opponents the “Wright” way. Treat them like family.

Mackay’s Moral: Great minds don’t always think alike.


Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or e-mail harvey@mackay.com.