How to Disagree
I had a young, new member of the leadership team I lead ask me, “What do you want me to do when I disagree with you?”
“If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.”
George S. Patton
Vitality, innovation, even passion are born in controversy, contradiction and discomfort. Doing something that stands out requires you or your organization to stand out. Standing out means you’re fighting the current, going against the status quo, in a word, disagreeing.
On paper it sounds simple. However, it’s challenging and the terrain perilous. For example, what if you are in the category of the new leader I mentioned. How do you disagree with the older, more experienced leader to whom you report?
Before you disagree learn and align.
Publically and privately express your alignment with organizational values, mission, and vision. Ask the experienced leaders to explain their understanding of these three essentials. Ask follow up questions that let others know you understand core values. Clearly, explicitly, express alignment.
Disagree early, clearly, politely, and specifically.
Don’t wait till the last moment. Offer your alternative perspective early in the debate. Clearly connect with the desired outcomes and be prepared to defend your position without becoming defensive.
Once the decision is made, grab an oar and row.
It doesn’t matter whose option or which combination of options is chosen. Once the final decision is made, the entire team is all-in.
Young leaders may feel a need to hang on to their positions even when they are rejected. In my opinion arrogance usually drives this attitude. Rather than hanging on, let it go. Humble yourself, grab an oar and row for the good of the team. You’ll earn respect by respecting the decision you didn’t agree with.
What other suggestions can you offer someone who disagrees with their boss or with a decision the leadership team has made?
You captured my immediate attention with the title of this post “How to Disagree” and never lost it with the suggestions offered. Clarifying up front how to disagree may well be THE way to keep the balance between consideration for people’s feelings and vitality toward the end goal.
New team members could ask this of other team members as an opening question when they join the team. The response could be quite telling!
If team members react negatively, it might tell you that the scales are tipped toward “feelings more than outcomes.” If they embrace it and you for asking, you may have found nirvana. And if they look at you as an alien for asking it and you see them speaking boldly to each other, the scales may be tipped far away from feelings and straight into outcomes.
Perhaps this question would have helped all in the case study I posted yesterday:
Thanks for your timely and unique contribution on “how to disagree”.
I love your insight here Kate. And have to agree – it would be a very useful and interesting ice-breaker!
When you got down to “New team members could ask this of other team members as an opening question when they join the team. The response could be quite telling!” I was rolling around potential responses and what those responses indicate about an organization and/or team members.
You really got me thinking.
Thanks for leaving a link to a very useful article. I hope LF readers stop over.
Best to you,
Kate Nasser is a featured blogger on Leadership Freak. She regularly shares her insights. I’ve posted her bio and contact information at:
This situation also provides an opportunity for this leader to think about his own habits when subordinates disagree with him.
I’ve had some good managers, people who would truly listen if I didnt’ disagree with their opinions, and would take what I said to heart and sometimes taken a new direction as a result.
Now that I’ve had this experience, I feel that I also have the responsibitlity to take a similar approach when others disagree with me.
I feel that the attitude of “I’m always right” probably has a strong positive relationship with stagnation of ideas.
Thank you for adding value.
I’m reading along enjoying your comment when the last sentence cranked me. You wrote with gentle understatement. Nicely said.
Dan, very useful topic. Even more basic than “how to disagree” is that an organization which prohibits disagreement or makes it clear that employees who tend to “disagree” are harming themselves — is an organization that has a serious dysfunction at its organizational heart.
This topic brought to mind my colleague, Niki Pocock’s, post (Growing Up or Getting Lazy?) in which she examines how her personal approach to disagreeing in the professional arena has changed as she has acquired more work experience. I would like to share it with the Leadership Freak community (and I commented on her post, from the perspective of a baby boomer vs a Gen Y):
Thanks for the good word and for sharing your insights.
Great points. As one who hears disagreements I get a little anxious about encouraging them. What helps is certainty that we agree on foundational issues (values, etc.), then disagreements seem productive.
Thanks for adding value and leaving an added resource for LF readers.
Glad you keep giving back,
Paula is a featured blogger on Leadership Freak. You’ll regularly enjoy her insights. Read her bio and contact info at: http://leadershipfreak.wordpress.com/paula-kiger
Good points, Dan. When a person disagrees, the science behind persuasion offers a few more suggestions. Learn and focus on what motivates the boss at work. When he or she is arguing points, what themes emerge? Cost cutting? Making customers happy? Making stockholders happy? Tie your position to those themes.
Also try to match their language use. Does she tend to be blunt and to the point? Does he work hard to use nonconfrontational language? Try to do the same. And yes, if you’re disagreeing with multiple people in a meeting, it’s perfectly okay to switch motives and styles as needed as long as your position is consistent.
I especially like Dan’s point about letting go, though. If you keep re-fighting battles, you will lose credibility with your listeners, which is a key factor in future persuasiveness. If someone hears something they disagree with, an early subconscious tactic it so dismiss the source as not credible (as I wrote on Kate’s blog yesterday!). So I employ the “one-pushback rule” with upper managers and customers. If I disagree, I push back once–meaning one discussion, not just one sentence–and if I see I’m getting nowhere, I retreat to fight another day.
Thanks for getting my brain going on a rainy morning, Dan!
Ka Pow! You packed a punch with all the great ideas you added to the conversation.
I particularly like the mirroring technique you suggest.
The one push back rule ROCKS.
Thanks for getting my brain started over lunch.
Good advice. Especially the last part. It’s devastating even someone jumps in the boat and rows, just to brag when the boat goes over a water fall.
I hear you. It’s immature at best and stupid at worst to rejoice when others fail.
Thanks for stopping by. It’s always great seeing you.
Great topic, and a difficult one to get the balance right on. On the flip side of this is the importance of “learning to agree” constructively. There is nothing more frustrating than a team member who constantly agrees with everything said without providing their own ideas. As always, the trick is getting the balance right between agreeing and disagreeing constructively.
Thanks for adding the “agreeing” dimension to the discussion.
Smart team member, to “contract” clearly at the start of the relationship about how to disagree. Of course alignment is key, and hopefully presented itself during the interview, selection and on-boarding process – assuming there was one.
Known when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em on dealing with possible young leader arrogance, if present, is smart. I agree with Jim Morgan, a key point. Great post and some great commentary as well.
Yes indeed. I think every new person should ask… How should I disagree?
Thank you for stopping in to encourage.
Best to you,
Great post Dan. First of all disagreement is one of the tools designed for growth and innovation and should be embraced. I totally agree that the setting needs to be appropriate and all dialogue anchored by the organization’s Values, Mission, and Vision. For disagreements to be constructive all emotive comments should be curtailed as much as possible. Everyone’s voice should be heard, information assessed, and when possible supported by objective data and not hearsay or personal agendas. The over arching goal should be the success of the team. As I have mentioned before on Leadership Freak, in my mind there is no such thing as “bad” feedback and certainly disagreements are one way of providing feedback. Lastly as you correctly say once all parties have had their say and consensus not necessarily unamimity has been reached it should be assumed that all will “carry the flag.” Solidarity needs to rule the day when team members adjourn and any deviation from this should never be tolerated. When it comes to creativity and innovation everyone in the organization can step up and put forth their ideas even if they don’t synch with administration. this follows nicely with the concept of the horizontal org chart. Embracing arguments and disagreements allows us to harness the most potential from all in the organization. Thanks for the post. Very timely for us in the healthcare industry with Obamacare taking hold and provoking as you can imagine alot of disension among the troops!
Love your comment. One thing you reminded me about is the way we disagree includes things like tone of voice. Great call.
I imagine you frequently ride a hurricane in the role you play. I respect your insights, affirmations, and additions.
I really admire your team member for asking you about how to disagree and asking you BEFORE a disagreement. That is smart and professional behavior. The team that never faces conflict is a scary one. It is all about how you face conflict together that defines you!
I hadn’t thought about “how we face conflict together defines us.” Interesting point. Thank you.
I do know this… the more conflicts/disagreements we have successfully navigated the stronger the relational ties. This may indicate that organizations that bury conflict never have the chance to develop loyalty and respect for each each other.
YOu made me think in a new way.
Loved this article – on point and great advice.
I was struck by the assumption in the opening, which is by itself a powerful lesson in leadership: The fact the person asked “What should I do when we disagree?”
In my experience, candor is missing in almost all of today’s workplaces, and too often, leaders sidestep the really honest conversations. The first person to break that ice deserves a purple heart medal for organizational bravery.
Once that Pandora’s box has been opened it’s catching. People find such relief in discovering how to cooperate – and now the skills of alignment, positive intent, and “all for the team” have a place to land.
Thanks for highlighting this essential issue.
What a refreshing and true comment.
John Spence in his book Awesomely Simple agrees with your assessment. Few companies have the courage to have the hard conversations.
Nicely said. Best,
Hi Dan – great points. Any good leader will have created an environment where differences of opinion or perspective can be constructively and openly aired. Your guidelines provide a good framework for junior employees to do that.
There are times when seniority overrules ( it’s also about buck stopping) and junior members once their viewpoint has been expressed have to accept that decision.
Right on. There comes a point in some discussions that the old guy says…”Anything else?” Then he looks around and says, “I think we need to do (whatever), any problems?” Then everyone grabs an oar.
Thanks for sharing your insights,
“Don’t wait till the last moment.” This is the key for me. If you have waited until the last minute…was it poor prep, fear, being impulsive, being the noob, or was it a ‘gotcha’ tactic you were employing? All but the noob have negative consequences.
New leader or old leader in a new organization, do your advance work with your leaders and/or your team. What are the ground rules for debating issues. This may occur, with your leader, in a one to one, or early on in any employment. You can always play the noob card for the first few months on a new job, but that card is invalid after a set time (size of organization increases the shelf life of the card). Ask, don’t assume.
Jim, thanks for another perspective. I thought where you headed was kowtowing (great word–Chinese which literally means banging one’s head, but also means bowing and tapping one’s head on the ground in respect) to a blunt, confrontive leader. The other perspective relates to learning, both the positive and negative approaches to leadership, values and consistency in presentation. We can always learn good examples and bad examples. Just because your boss is the leader, that does not mean s/he has finished learning… how to lead. One more perspective is ensuring that your position is aligned with the organization and if not aligned with the leader, more introspection may be needed.
Definitely choose your battles! Timing is everything.
“When we are debating an issue, loyalty means giving me your honest opinion, whether you think I’ll like it or not. Disagreement, at this stage, stimulates me. But once a decision has been made, the debate ends. From that point on, loyalty means executing the decision as if it were your own.” –Colin Powell
Super comment. Thank you.
Glad you picked up on the idea of “disagree early” thanks for expanding it. I was mostly thinking of the gotcha tactic that may make a newbie come across as a know it all… as in I let all you dummies work it out, now I’m going to solve the issue. Gag me with a spoon.
Love the Colin Powell quote where two sides of loyalty are explained. Great stuff.
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Everything about success in this life is about “the overcoming” of a variety of things. Overcoming is what growth is. There are folks who seem to think that if everyone agreed, then all pain would cease to exist and everyone would be happy and successful. That somehow disagreement and a positive atmosphere cannot coexist in the same space. However, I do not find this to be true.
Disagreement is essentially a growth opportunity to overcome something. Whether that is overcoming “not knowing” by learning new things from the disagreeing point of view, overcoming the limitations of a singular view by bringing several points of view together into a successful bundle, overcoming by learning not to be whishy-washy in the face of a dissenting view, or simply overcoming the challenge/discomfort of disagreement itself.
Thanks for adding value again.
As I read down your comment the closer to the end I got the more it connected with things I have learned.
Things like … overcoming whishy-washy attitudes or the discomfort I feel with disagreement…. Life is better and leaders are more effective when we can face the hard truths honestly, respectfully, with the big picture in mind.
I agree that one earns respect by respecting decision one is not agreeing with. The solution to disagree lies in giving respect to the feelings and thoughts of leader first. And when you agree to disagree, talk about collective goal of organisation and also use “WE”. Put yourself in the position of a leader, understand his feelings and then talk.
Sandwitch method seems to be more appealing. In this method, first appreciate the person’s feelings, explain issue in discussion from your perspective, discuss pros and cons and weigh more on cons side, persuade to negate softly and then appreciate the person’s position. For example if I disagree to my superior, I would rather say- I appreciate your decision made which seems very logical and relevant and that will also outperform our goal, however there are some issues that needs to be taken into account before executing our new idea into action. Focussing on pros and cons, cons looks more probable so, It would be better if we focus more on issues in question
And we can postpone our decision from executing for sometime. Otherwise your decision is fastastic.
Before taking decision, if one wants to disagree with his boss on one to one basis, Always try to understand his position and ask question like- sir, why do you think so? But I think that issue is more important than this. It would be better if we focus on those issues that will yield better and faster result. The whole idea behind this move is to divert his attention from current idea. It actually works. Instead of rejecting or disagreeing directly, try to divert and engage in some other issues. So, for time being you can engage his some other issues and in general discussion you can say that the decision taken that day does not seem very logical. There are other issues which needs urgent attetion and more important than the one. So,better focus on other areas.
The most important things in the whole game is to focus on non verbal communication. Your body language and eye movement should conform with your boss. This conformity will build relation and trust. In any case, trust building is more important than trust breaking.
I’m reading through your comment tracking along and then you bring another new component I should have included…
Listen to understand before speaking to be understood. Covey
In addition… the adding of body language to the discussion is another important component to success.
Thank you for adding value!
Ajay is a featured contributor on Leadership Freak. He regularly adds value and shares his insights. I posted his bio at: http://leadershipfreak.wordpress.com/ajay-gupta
Young/new leaders often confuse humility with weakness (or think that even
appearing humble hurts their image as a leader). But “extreme personal
humility” is one of the traits Jim Collins (Good to Great research/book)
speaks about as being part of “Level 5 Leadership” that was a big
competitive advantage for the 11 companies who made the jump from
average/good performance to great. In our research we found that the right
balance of ego and humility is a unique, competitive strength and consists
of three, primary things:
1. A “we, then me” mentality.
2. An “I’m brilliant…and I’m not” attitude.
3. Constructive discontent. (Always striving to improve, despite how good we
We teach about becoming a Level 5 (or G5) leader in our free online
leadership seminar. You’re all welcome to attend.
Thanks for drawing our attention to a potential tension between weak and humble. Nice call on reminding us all about Jim Collins’ work.
Glad you left a link. I wish you success.
Great insights Dan,
I might also share my observations about Trust as a foundation of being able to communicate, or “discuss the undiscussables”. Using personal vulnerabilities (as discussed by Patrick Lencioni in his book the “5 Dysfunctions of a Team”), Leadership Teams can reach quite deeply into constructive dialogue.
We all share in the “Herd Mentality”. We want to belong with others, we want to have the support of those around us. Being able to disagree in a trusting environment with good active listening skills can ensure positive growth in our relationships.
I like your steps, but most importantly, I cheer for your support of “joining the Team” on a collaborative decision.
You’ve added another important dimension to the conversation. Thank you.
As I read your comment I started thinking about the value in creating conflict. A skilled leader can draw out diverging opinions by their example and encouragement of alternative view points. It’s not an accident. It’s intentional.
Thank you for sharing your insights,
Dan, you do a great job everyday. My staff is ranting over you.
It’s always great to read a short note of encouragement. If you have any subliminal messages for your staff let me know and I will slip them in between the lines. 🙂
What was running through his mind when your direct report said, “What do you want me to do”?. Was there a more deeper message that he was trying to convey?. Was there more to what he was saying?.
The topic is a very typical and common phenomena in the worklife of a leader. We are constantly at crossroad in making that choice called “decision” that will impact the actions of those involved. I guess it’s a challenge that leaders have to put up with, favourably or unfavorably.
Think aloud?. Why do people become so OCD, with having to hold unto their “disaggreements”. I do not like stereotyping the generations – they are not born such. There are many factors that shape people’s thinking pattern. We have to come to terms in accepting that agreeing and disagreeing will remain part of our life. How we respond to it in a manner that breeds greater understanding, harmony and acceptance is more important.
For me, I enjoy every minute of this challenge (probelm solving & Decision Making) because it provides me a multitude of opportunities to dwell, learn, explore, test, evaluate, prove, analyse, synergise, etc. It gives me a wonderful opportunity to see the potential in others and how receptive I am to new ideas. It tells as much of myself than the team members. When in a team context, I do not see people as individuals. The team goal supersedes all individual interest and that includes what I think!. Of course, all this takes humility and trust which comes from faith in teamwork.
Embrace, accomodate and encourage disaggrements, if you want to create an engaged, dynamic and creative workforce. When everyone has spoken, then make a decision that best serves the mission or goal. Once decided, the focus and attention should move towards fully executing and supporting the actions plans. There should be no ifs and buts. Everyone should swing their weight to make it a success, including taking contingency steps to mitigate or even review the desision!
The biggest problem with agreeing and disagreeing on opinions and decisions comes from the ugly side of human ego that is largely connected with powers of position, status and arrogance. Take that away and you will find the leadership fire within to build that elusive “product” call – TEAM.
Thanks for your comment.
What was going through the young leaders mind?
1. Concern for relationship
2. Feeling trapped if there wasn’t a channel for their creativity
3. Concern for the wellbeing of the organization
4. Concern for the leadership-dynamic
5. Respect for me as a leader
I’m with you Yuva. I love the whole process. However, I find not everyone has the same comfort level. Some are stressed by tension. others don’t like being on the spot. In this case sensitivity to the individuals on the team is essential.
You have my regards,
I am late reading this but I wanted to add that I think this post is brilliant. My favourite line: “Once the decision is made, grab an oar and start rowing.” I facilitate a lot of strategic planning sessions and one of the most common themes to emerge is the fact that the team spends (wastes?) time revisiting decisions because people don’t agree with the initial decision.
Having said that I did once have an experience where people agreed with the decisions that had been made. Once we started pulling on the oars though, we realized there was one component that was so clearly shortsighted, that it was obvious that things needed to be changed (not just discussed). It was very interesting to see senior management dig in their heels and defend the decision when we raised it at each meeting. It took more than a year to reverse the decision, but the damage had been done, and the team that was affected eventually broke apart. I look back on it now and wonder if we could have done things differently in the planning that would have encouraged more through discussion of the pros and cons and made it safe for people to disagree with what had been proposed.
I am going to pass on the link to this post because there is a lot in here that the clients I work with will find helpful. Thank you.
Thanks for you comment. I wonder if the revisiting activity is because they didn’t give their input or it’s second guessing? It can be frustrating when a decision gets “what about this” and “we could that” to death.
It’s interesting you bring up the importance of adjusting course. I encouraged course adjustment in today’s post.. http://leadershipfreak.wordpress.com/2010/08/25/confident-humility/
Best to you,
Excellent topic. Every leader has advisors that can cover the gambit of situations so they leave no stone left unturned. It’s important for anyone in a position of authority to allow those under their employ to have the freedom to speak freely without the worry of condemnation. Great ideas are born adversity. Nothing is made perfect. If you don’t allow your personal feelings to infect your personal life, you can achieve amazing things.
Thanks for your comment.
I’m taking the idea that “personal feelings” may actually pollute the decision making process. It’s not about “me” its about the mission.
Absolutely. When one puts him/herself in front of the goals the results become skewed. It’s is for the better of the project and not individual accolades that move things forward. If one operates in such fashion the recognition follows.
Dan, I really enjoyed this nugget you have offered here. In my experience, new team members might be best served to hold off on being too opinionated too soon. It takes a bit of time to get a sense of the larger picture and disagreements may be based on lack of knowledge. In the event that the time is right to voice a contrary opinion, be firm and clear on your position. The biggest challenge will always be removing the ego. What is the motivation for the disagreement. Looking forward to posts in future. Cheers
Thanks Dan for pointing me to this post, it is great!
There are way too many work environments where employees are afraid to share their thoughts and opinions or are just never asked…
Sharing these points with your young team member not only gives him standards to follow but also allows him to be involved and respected for his thoughts. What great mentoring!
If all leaders fostered honest, healthy, respectful dialog’s in their workplaces and actually tapped into the full potential, passions and strengths of their people…wow what a powerful organization that would be!
Too often, disagreement is associated with “not being a team player”. An organization with like-minded individuals will have a tough time breaking through the status quo and advancing to the “innovative” stage.
Great suggestion to align your viewpoint to mission, values, and vision. If an organization doesn’t have these, disagreement is the least of their worries.
Great post, as always! Thank you for helping me think in ways that I believe a true leader should. I hope to someday become the leader my colleagues and peers deserve.