Disagreeing agreeably on school boards

Some school boards with which I have worked have never experienced a single word raised in anger.  Other boards function with a fear that if a certain member attends, or a certain combination of members attend, a flare-up is almost inevitable.

When people of passion and conviction come together on school boards, some conflict is bound to happen.  Provided the conflict of ideas remains respectful and does not degenerate into a conflict between people, this conflict is healthy because it means alternatives are being thoroughly explored and interrogated in a collective search for truth – or at least, the best possible solution to a shared problem.

Well, usually.

Cartoon showing disagreement because of contrasting perspectives.

The sad reality is that not all school board conflicts are as positive or as productive as my earlier paragraph suggests.  Personalities and tempers may intrude, and indeed philosophers have for centuries identified a quarrelsome nature to be a vice rather than a virtue.  The French philosophers Antoine Arnauld and Pierre Nicole identified a quarrelsome nature as “malformed egotism”, and no doubt many school board members who have found themselves in heated arguments on boards would agree.

Arguments undermine positive board dynamics because of attendees’ common natural reactions when they find themselves in adversarial situations.  Polemical disagreements often cause people into harden their stances – they stop listening to others’ reasoning, they cease reflecting on their own arguments and instead blindly reiterate their own position almost as a matter of personal honour.  If this attitude reaches the point of simply dismissing what others are saying, the board’s meeting dynamics are likely to break down irredeemably.  

When this happens, two equally negative consequences become probable.  On one hand, a board member may believe something so completely, so passionately and so fundamentally that he or she becomes incapable of processing what others are saying to the contrary.  Alternatively, it may happen that the board member is utterly resistant to the idea of having to back down simply because of the reputational damage they imagine might result. (A third, hopefully less likely variation of this second consequence is that the board member so detests, or looks down upon, the character of their interlocutor that he or she just cannot bear the thought of sharing the same viewpoint as that person).

All three consequences reflect the vice of hubris that arises from the egotistical bias of inflated self-belief.  As George Sand famously said, “vanity is the quicksand of reason”.  Anger, distemper and vanity are all powerful barriers to understanding the reasons underpinning a person’s truth position.

The underlying issue here is that the way some board members go about disagreeing is often subconsciously driven by ego.  Specifically, their driving force is whatever will make them look good or whatever is best for them, rather than fulfilling their primary fiduciary duty which is to promote whatever is best for the school.

Many commentators claim that ego is an inevitable driver of the human condition; they claim it is human nature to be motivated by ego.  However, having worked with school boards in many cultures and countries around the world, I have concluded that this is not universally true; Western societies may be peculiarly focussed in driving people in an ego-centred direction.  An effective contributor in Western societies tends not to be seen as a person who has received ideas and understandings from others, but rather as someone who has formed their own original opinions, often irrespective of their factual bases, and who can then use these opinions to their own advantage.  (And as we see in debates over issues such as climate change, vaccine effectiveness, and other less global political issues, opinions in The West do not necessarily have to be grounded in scientific evidence to gain widespread currency).

By contrast, societies in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, together with Indigenous cultures in Australia, the Americas and elsewhere, give great respect to knowledge (including myths) that has been tested and has endured the test of time, and which is consistent with experience and evidence.  It follows from this that respect is given to people who convey such knowledge, which helps explain the huge difference in respect shown to scholars and teachers in those societies compared with Western Europe, North America and other Westernised societies.  I believe it is no coincidence that school boards in non-Western societies generally tend to work respectfully and harmoniously, even when disagreements arise, whereas boards in economically wealthy Western societies are more likely argue through the lens of ego.

One of the problems I have observed with some school boards (in Western countries) is that when disagreements occur, the board member who seems to be “winning” the debate starts to demand that the “loser” signify this in what may be a humiliating manner.  For example, the “winner” may press for some act of recantation that will result in a loss of face for the “loser”.  That would never happen in (say) Asia where I worked for many years.  Perhaps the lesson for Western school boards is that the ethics of disagreement should include showing grace to those with whom you disagree through some combination of tact, flattery, and even willing acceptance of some of the (perhaps minor) points they have been making.

How then might I advise school board members how to disagree more agreeably, and thus more productively?  I would begin by suggesting that all board members should take a short course in logic so they can tell the difference between a sound and an unsound argument, knowing some rules for ‘thinking well’ and avoiding seductive errors of unsound reasoning.  Board members should be invested in thoroughly understanding the reasons underpinning both their own opinions and the opinions of others.

Agreeable disagreements should be embraced because they can reveal important confusions in our own position, thus clarifying our own thinking while simultaneously advancing the wider group’s search for truth.  Disagreements go well when everyone has been trained to engage in positive, productive communication so that each person understands the ‘rules’ for effective engagement.  Disagreements go poorly when these virtues are replaced by vanity, anger, deafness to others and egocentric hubris.

There is a lovely quote I heard recently from Waleed Aly on one of my favourite podcasts (“The Minefield”) which captures very well the humility required to disagree agreeably: “I’ve never entered an argument without wishing that the truth was on the other person’s tongue, because that way I would learn something”.

-Dr Stephen Codrington

We offer introductory short workshops on logic and ethics which are designed to help school boards and leaders discern and appreciate the difference between sound and unsound arguments.  You can find out more by sending us an e-mail.  We also offer workshops on making conflict positive and productive, such as OSG-S6 ‘Overcoming the Challenges of Governance and Minimising Risk’.

Detailed advice on conflict management is also provided in the book "Optimal School Governance", which can be ordered directly through Pronins.

You may also be interested in previous articles which are archived at https://optimalschool.com/articles.html. You can subscribe to receive future articles by e-mail using the red button below.