Feeding Conversation

Bob Sutton, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, writes often about the role that constructive conflict plays in group performance and innovation.

Bob Sutton spent three days last week at a meeting in Singapore with business and government leaders, and suggested that there are cultural differences in how easily participants openly engaged in critical discussion with other meeting participants:

One of the folks I was working with in Singapore commented that open — even if constructive — conflict is something that Westerners do, but Asians tend not to do (and indeed although I engaged in some open disagreement, especially with a fellow American academic, there was not much other open disagreement in any of the workshops).

But I am talking about in open — if small — public forums. In contrast, I spent a lot of time in one-on- one conversations engaging in quite active debate and (polite) two-way constructive criticism. Indeed, I would say that I engaged in more argument in one-on-one conversations than I would with a typical American business crowd. I would also add that these backstage conversations — for the most part — helped improve the workshops and sharpen my thinking. … The amount and quality of constructive conflict I experienced was similar to what I would expect from a U.S. organization, but the difference is that it all happened backstage.

Sutton’s observations track with those reported in Convene’s “Meet in Asia” series: Such strategies as handing out paper and pencils in meetings with Asian attendees has helped to get discussion flowing during Q & A sessions, Kershing Goh, Singapore Tourism Board’s regional director for the Americas, told Executive Editor Chris Durso.

It also reminded me of a talk I had back in 2008 with Linda Still, CMP, the director of meetings and exhibits for the American Association of Cancer Research, and a veteran of planning meetings in Singapore. Coffee and cookies don’t cut it there during breaks, Still told me. Substantial spreads are laid out for attendees, even at 10:30 a.m., not long after breakfast.

And it makes perfect sense when you consider the elevated position of private conversations during meetings in Singapore. More food = more talk.

Barbara Palmer

Barbara Palmer is senior editor and director of digital content.