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?