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Agreeable to Disagreement

Students of leadership may recall a clever quotation from George S. Patton: No one is thinking if everyone is thinking alike. Although disagreements in the workplace can sometimes create emotionally charged situations, thoughtful disagreement can be quite constructive when managed appropriately. Many leaders have found success by not trying to prevent disagreement but rather by learning how to harness it.

One tell-tale sign of trouble for a manager is when members of his or her project team are not speaking up in meetings. Unless all of the employees are intensely shy, you might be a victim of groupthink, the phenomenon that occurs when group members become so enamored of seeking agreement that the norm for consensus trumps a realistic assessment of alternative courses of action. Members of a group find it more satisfying to be in agreement than to be seen as a disruptive force, even if thoughtful disagreement could improve the effectiveness of the group’s decisions.

While it might be considered safe for an individual member of the team to keep quiet, avoiding disagreement can be disastrous. Well-known examples of groupthink abound, including the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Vietnam conflict, and the Space Shuttle Challenger accident.

To avoid the potential quicksand, managers can welcome feedback and disagreement to help create and maintain an environment where candor is valued and respected. Healthy debate about ideas and options is encouraged, but personal attacks would not be tolerated. Managers will likely find that creativity takes off as people open up and contribute more thoughts and ideas. With this increased openness, managers are more likely to gain an objective evaluation of the proposal.

Here are some approaches that managers have found to be helpful for encouraging thoughtful disagreement in the workplace:

— Ask everyone on your team to provide a positive as well as a negative comment on the proposed idea. This approach typically frees up people to think and speak openly.

— Designate a staff member to serve as a devil’s advocate and identify possible weaknesses in the proposal. Assigning staff members to play such a role on a rotational basis helps to depersonalize conflict that might arise.

— Create a task group to serve as a devil’s advocate in identifying the negatives of a decision alternative. Make sure that the staff members collect data that will shed light on the problem and the proposed solution.

— Bring in an experienced facilitator as a third party to help manage a meeting with your staff or the project team to collect additional opinions in a nonthreatening environment. The group’s leader should stay in an observer role and listen to the pros and cons, the rationale, and the arguments. This dialogue will likely help the manager in the decisionmaking process and in later defending the ultimate decision.

These approaches are not appropriate for all decisions that a leader has to make. For some decisions, the leader might need to rely more on the advice of a trusted mentor, an experienced peer, a human capital specialist, or the organization’s legal department.

Also, as a manager, taking this approach does not mean that you cannot or should not make decisions that differ from the views of your employees or a project team. After hearing their relevant feedback, if you disagree, you can simply state that you sincerely respect their competence and their views but that you have decided to go another way. Moreover, being open to the views and opinions of others does not mean that you have to compromise your ethics and values.

If you are a manager or supervisor, there is little doubt that your employees notice your behavior and pick up cues as to whether or not you are agreeable to disagreement. If they sense that you are not open to feedback and diverse views, many of them will be slow to offer valuable input that could help save you from making a serious misstep.

Are you agreeable to disagreement?

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Martha McLean

Scott – bravo and thanks!!

As someone who manages a web team and over 100 websites, I thrive on disagreement and discussion. Managing the web in the Government is still relatively new, at least managing it effectively. As it is ever-evolving, healthy, spirited discussions are needed on a continuous basis in order to keep our minds and vision forward-looking.

The challenge I find is to balance my own thoughts and present them in a way that won’t discourage others from offering their own, even when solicited, for fear it may be contrary to mine. You’ve provided some excellent approaches for me to keep in mind, thank you!




Really good stuff. It is so hard to foster useful disagreement.

One idea I heard recently is to start with “give us your worst idea on X”. And make it a competition for the worst idea. So it frees people up from saying and agreeing.

Scott Bryan

I wonder if we are fighting an uphill battle for no good reason. Perhaps cyberspace is the best place to look for an environment suited to tease out our most effective mindset. Can’t we find ways to be both anonymous and accountable at the same time? I think we should be experimenting with shared document models that tend to separate us from what we say and thus make it easier for others to criticize the idea without risking the inevitable social consequences that flow only from the fact that the idea is publicly tied to an author.

We’re using this media as if it were paper. Why not explore alternative ways to have discussions altogether. Suppose you could highlight a phrase and have a very small focused discussion with the author of it to clarify its meaning. Or that part of leaving a post involved marking it up a great deal afterwards, the intent being to link the various ideas it conveys to other discussions involving those same concepts which the interface would help you find and reference.

I think a lot of the intellectual effort involved in having a group discussion goes into trying to find ways to communicate that avoid unwanted connotations because we have evolved an extensive innate machinery to exploit those situations in various ways. None of that stuff can do anything but get in the way trying to focus on the issue at hand. But if we could create a place where we disappear, and all that is left to focus on is the problem we’re collectively addressing, then perhaps we’ll most easily remain both objective and collaborative.

K. Scott Derrick

David – Thanks for your comments…and for your great post on communication: https://www.govloop.com/profiles/blogs/soft-skills-solid-results

Martha – Here, here! I really like the metaphor of balancing your own views as a manager with the openness needed so as not to discourage others from offering their opinions. Nice…

Steve – Good idea. Hmmm…what would we name that contest?!

Scott – Yeah, using technology is a great way to leverage many of these approaches. More managers will probably do that as the use of wikis and other technologies increases. Anonymous input can be useful, but hopefully we won’t always need anonymity to achieve honesty and openness in the work environment

Gwynne – Nice tips. If words don’t give something away, often body language will. Rewards and recognition for speaking up, even when there is disagreement, can be a good way to show you’re serious and sincere about the issue.

Reg Coppicus

In Leadership lectures, I have introduced the concept of the “desireable” level of conflict in a team or organization. The word “Conflict” makes people uncomfortable, but without healthy conflict you can’t achieve the goal of healthy disagreement and follow-on productive arguement. Keeping the conflict productive and not destructive is the trick. De Bono’s “6 Thinking Hats” is a good structured mechanism to experiment with, as it creates an environment that encourages various ways of looking at a situation and dfferent approaches to working with it. Look at it here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Six_Thinking_Hats
Excellent article, thank you.

Sharone Woodruff

Great article. I recently facilitate a meeting and use a new technique called brainwriting, its a new twist to brainstorming. It worked wonders and we got solution to problems and everyone had input without being singled out in the group. This works great for nodding heads to the first few ideas. Check it out at your next solutions meeting.
Brainwriting article/ template: http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newCT_86.htm