You Lose if They Can’t Disagree
Three years after the fact, a true friend of mine told me why he hadn’t expressed his concerns. “I didn’t believe you would listen. You’d already made up your mind.” Sadly, he was right.
I’d become convinced of a problem and found the solution.
Passionately sharing solutions, too soon, overwhelms others.
Courageously point out challenges and problems, on your own.
Find solutions with your team.
Weak leaders control others; strong leaders release them.
Creative thinking begins with disagreement. Eric Hoffer said, “The beginning of thought is in disagreement – not only with others but also with ourselves.”
Invite your team to disagree.
- Why isn’t this effective?
- How does this initiative diverge from our mission?
- Does this align with our values?
Vitality is born in controversy, contradiction and discomfort.
Mediocre teams always agree.
Invite outsiders in to tell you what won’t work.
Invite experts in to explain how it’s been done in other places. Tom Peters warns, “Best practices are to be learned from – not mimicked.”
Disagree early – grab an oar later. Create environments where disagreeing early in the process is healthy. Expect people to grab an oar once decisions are made. 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.
Consensus won’t cut it. The goal of the process is listening and learning, not creating consensus.
You must courageously point the way.
Fresh ideas and new initiatives die under the pressure of disagreement. Courageously explore options. Keep saying we need a solution – we can do better.
Negatives don’t create a positive future. They’re only part of the process.
How can leaders create environments where disagreeing is easy and progress continues?
Dan, every leader I’ve mentored or grown up with has had to process through this – great topic. I posted a blog on this a couple of weeks ago because this is one of the huge dangers of an artificially-positive environment – you know, where discouraging words are taken as disloyalty. I think those leaders who believe they have consensus are fooling themselves. Someone always disagrees, at least at first. If they’re not saying it to you, they’re saying it in the hallway or lunch room.
I try to encourage critical feedback in a couple of ways. We always “put new ideas up on the dartboard.” It’s a figure of speech that reminds us all that the darts are expected to follow. We also refer to ideas in their early stages as blocks of marble and talk about the process as finding the statue inside, which means a lot of stuff has to be chipped away.
Another technique I use a lot, right before a decision is made to implement, is to challenge the group by saying, “OK, tell me the most likely ways for this to fail.”
Of course, people do what is affirmed. If you don’t somehow affirm the ones who challenge your idea, they won’t do it very often.
This topic is so important to me and it the primary reason I still work with my current employer.
When I was interviewed, I had a policy disagreement with the head of the organization and they hired me anyway. Less than a year later, I was asked to help recruit a new employee when the topic came up I was asked to express my opposing opinion. I was later told this was to let the prospective employee know that it was ok not to agree with everything management said.
It took me more than 5 years to get the policy changed but by letting me know that it was ok to disagree, management also let me know that they cared about independent thought and input from all sides of a discussion.
Now as a member of management, I try to make sure that I am encouraging everyone to express an opinion even if it does not line up with management’s views.
Good to learn on your courage to disagree and expressing your opposing opinion. Glad to see at the end you are part of management and you are with the same employer. At times, it speaks of the character of CEO and his style of working in building a progressive work culture at the organization.
It’s the leader that makes a real difference to encourage others to practice what is best in the organization interest, even it means challenging the company’s set policies and decisions.
I’m not sure which impresses me more, your courage to speak up in the interview rather than accepting something just to land the job, or your organization’s willingness to look past the disagreement and still see all the reasons to hire and promote you. Sounds like you landed in a good spot and they made a great hire. Kudos to both of you.
Nice patience Bonnie! When you find an organizational culture that values diversity on multiple levels, you are in a great place!
Hi Dan, great post as usual. Just a couple of quick thoughts. Disagreements can harness a lot of power in of themselves not only with those on the team but others outside looking in. Contrasting points of view are very healthy and should be always encouraged. I believe after the “process” as you mention people need to come together and execute holding up one flag. Consensus just means people agree, cooperation means people come along but Collaboration means active engagement by all. To use your metaphor not just holding the oar but actually swinging it in the same direction as everyone else. As Joe Tye puts it, paraphrasing is the “invisible architecture” of the organization that allows a healthy culture to exist and without doubt let folks speak up but more importantly pay attention and actively listen and connect.
You make some great points, Al. Once a decision is made, the time for active disagreement is past.
Also, keep in mind that although consensus in this context isn’t always a good goal, consensus isn’t a bad thing. To me, consensus is what happens when a diverse group with diverse backgrounds and goals agrees on something that will be effective for all. If you don’t give some attention to consensus at some point, you risk missing something important to one or more groups.
Hi Greg, thanks for the comment. I don’t disagree that both consensus and cooperation are important, and both are necessary for true collaboration to occur. I like to shoot for collaboration because everyone has in one way or another “skin in the game” and that leads to better performance for the team as a whole. Everyone’s degree of collaboration will vary of course dependent on skill sets, energy and motivation. Thanks 🙂
And of course it is always a blast when everyone is ‘all in’!
I wasn’t disagreeing — I think you’re dead on! Collaboration is the only one that is active for all parties.
I think leaders need to create an environment of disagreement by not taking any stand or challenging the stands of others. But this is not easy; one cannot challenge the ideas of others once he or she is not competent enough to suggest some more solutions to ideas. Leaders also need to know more options than others while challenging or taking stand. Leaders should start with common assumptions and beliefs, they should ask others opinions and logic behind it. They need to question the relevance behind those beliefs.
Only challenging or creating disagreement is not suffice, leaders should be in position to suggest creative ideas or solutions that people do not know or unaware about it. Leaders should also create situations of trust where people have expectations that leaders will suggest some better solutions.
I agree that weak leaders control others, strong leaders release them. It indicates that weak leaders control others from being challenged, whereas strong leaders release others for being challenged. Former approach blocks creativity and options and later approach enhances creativity and maximize options.
An interesting post with good learning.
Leaders should always seek suggestions from the senior management staff before arriving at any policy decision. Such things really happen only in a professional work environment. Competent people usually give their frank views and never hesitate to suggest better things even if such things are not heard or looked at. One looses the interest gradually if newer things are being criticized or is taken as a trouble shooter.
A word of caution: ‘Working on a disgreement or challenging the views of the top management/ comapny policies & procedures is a delicate art and such things need to be handled with care’,. It usually costs a job in the reality world.
Dan , it seems that this precept is a foundation piece for a healthy group of folks and org. culture. At it’s essence is ‘we can always learn’…not only ‘can’, but ‘must’ continually learn…the ‘C’ suiters or those in the trenches and learn from each other. You also pointed the importance of timing and pace. When to time your input to not stifle or misdirect dialogue and when to shift into action planning.
To avoid a less polite version of a “DA”…having a ‘Designated Antagonist’ within the early stages of discussion is a great role. And if there are too many ‘yesmen’…designating one of them to be anti-plan is a learning experience.
Right up my alley and such a great blog and responses.
All that I would add is the importance of buidling a corporate culture of conflict competence. Among other things, this is one in which engaging in conflict is seen as a healthy way of making decisions, innovating and accepting differences.
Since many people are reactive and afraid of conflict, the culture I describe takes strong leaders that have and that give people the proper tools to manage conflicting attitudes, ideas etc. and inspire them to participate without criticism, retaliation and so on.