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The most important consideration in an argument

I often like to ask myself whether I was arguing because there really wasn’t enough at stake. Many times I find this to be true and I’d like to try to explain why.birds fighting

The first time I started thinking this way was when I heard the following quote – “In academia, we fought so much because there was so little at stake” – a (probably modified) version of a quote attributed to Henry Kissinger. I feel this is true way beyond academia.

When things are going well, in a non-profit, in a startup, in a social club, etc., there is progress and there is growth. People find themselves with more responsibility and there are more spoils to share. It is easy to have new people join because there is so much to work/responsibility/money/etc. to go around. In many cases, when a tough decision needs to be made, it makes sense to take quick action because stalling slows progress and that just hurts everyone. There’s a big incentive to work together towards growth and holding things up with arguments is bad for everyone.

Now, think about the opposite scenario where things are heading south. There’s less work/responsibility/money/etc. and people find that they are beginning to overlap in what they are doing. There is overlap in responsibilities, there isn’t enough work to go around and, suddenly, there seem to be too many people to share the spoils*. Ultimately this can lead to the boredom, the firing of employees or other specific things. What’s probably sure though is that it leads to unhappiness.

So, what can we learn from this. Well, I think it’s really useful to recognise, after an argument, whether it is a situation of growth or decline. If it’s a situation of growth then you should ask whether you are holding up progress and should find a quick compromise. If it’s a situation of decline, then maybe you should ask whether it’s best to part ways and look in some other direction.

Ok, so clearly I’m leaving out situations whether there are arguments in high stakes situations. Fortunately this is a blog; so I can just keep it short and be incomplete.

*Actually, this matter is probably compounded by the fact that people are much more averse (roughly twice it seems from reading Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman) to losses than to gains. So if your organisation is shrinking it probably feels twice as worse than if it grew at the same rate.

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