“Gentlemen, I take it we are all in complete agreement on the decision here. Then, I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until the next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement, and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.” -Alfred P. Sloan
Our culture hates disagreement. We jump on it like a chicken on a June bug. We’re dug in and completely intolerant of opposing viewpoints. While simultaneously advocating complete acceptance and tolerance. It’s puzzling to me. But I’m a dot connector always trying to make sense of things. Even things that make no sense! 😉
It’s not just politics. It’s just about anything and everything. That’s only important because it creeps into our companies. We acclimate ourselves to culture and society. Unless we intentionally decide we’re going to do what’s best for us, even if a culture doesn’t agree.
We learn to play nice with others. To be agreeable as much as possible. To avoid conflict.
All bad things.
Conformity is nice. Comfortable. Convenient. Peaceful.
Blind conformity is even better. Just fall in line. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t ask any questions. Say, “Yes, ma’am” and “Yes, sir.”
Somewhere along the way, it seems people began to confuse compliance with respect. It’s evidenced by the woeful lack of respectful disagreement. RESPECTFUL disagreement.
That doesn’t mean we begin our rebuttal with, “I respectfully disagree.” It means we practice respect first. And if or when we disagree, then we do it respectfully.
Interpersonal skills are important. Often times they’re missing because some people struggle with awareness and emotional intelligence. I get it. We’ve all got different personalities, preferences, and styles. But I don’t get is a lack of respect up and down any chain of command within an organization. I would hope your momma and daddy taught you better.
With that, let’s talk about how we can foster disagreement and maintain (or foster even higher) respect.
For starters, as the owner or leader, you’ve got to commit to it. If you don’t see the value in it, then it won’t happen. There is so much discussion about working toward consensus, getting buy-in and having folks pull together. Those are important things, but I fear we’ve let them overshadow some of the benefits of the process to create those things.
I don’t know your physical fitness, but let’s assume you could benefit from getting into better shape. You hire a personal trainer and report to the gym for your first workout. Your body isn’t going to happily accept the challenge. All parts of your body, including your brain, are going to be screaming for you to quit. You have to push through all that knowing that on the other side of your continuous workouts will be improved fitness. Along the way, you’ll experience pain, dread, fear, embarrassment and a host of other feelings. The resistance is beneficial. It improves your resolve and determination.
Similar things happen inside an organization if the leader fosters them. All eyes and ears are on you. It’s important that you resolve in your mind how valuable disagreement and debate can be. Before you have some knee-jerk negative reaction to all this, let’s clarify that this can look any way you want it to look. The key thing is to avoid exploring innovative, creative solutions. And to question things respectfully so your company can better seize opportunities and better solve challenges.
Respect is the foundation and an open mind is the framing of the house of effective disagreement. If you, or any member of your team, believes “I’m the smartest person here” and operate from that perspective, then positive disagreement won’t happen. Closed minds are the enemy of growing great. How you choose to hire, train and fire have a big impact on the open-mindedness of your culture. Handle it carefully and intentionally.
Remember, I’m not suggesting that you operate with strife. Strife isn’t productive. It’s contentious, often anger-filled. Disagreement and debate are respectful, passionate and enthusiastic. They produce innovation and creativity. And they don’t sabotage agreed upon strategies. They’re not self-centered or selfish. They surrender to the good of the organization, seeking to bring the highest value possible to the desired outcome.
Time and place are important. Always. When people are working together this is always true. All of us have to work harder to become more aware of each other and to behave in ways that show respect, not just as people, but as teammates capable of contributing to the desired outcome. We’re all capable of making a positive impact. We’re also capable of making a negative impact. It’s urgent for everybody to avoid creating a problem, or making things worse.
You foster disagreement like Alfred Sloan was able to do in those early days of General Motors. You can be bold and ask for it. You can play the devil’s advocate. There’s any number of strategies you could utiltize to foster it, but as with so many things you hear me say – “you’ll figure it out.” I want to encourage you to do that, figure it out.
I’ll leave you with a few things I’ve learned over the years to see if they might spark some creative juices for you.
Challenge the people who make the suggestion (and work to sell it) to disagree with it, too. It can be quite effective to have people flip positions themselves. It can force people to approach it from the opposite and opposing viewpoint.
Create an environment where suggestions get challenged by the entire group. Do this by fostering questions that help the entire group better understand the situation and the suggestion. Don’t make it an intense interrogation. Rather, make it an exercise whose aim is to help the group better understand. This will help each member of the team learn to think more clearly and to expresss themselves more clearly, too.
Put “why?” at the forefront of the discussion. People are driven to know and understand why. As the leader, it’s important that your people understand why things are decided and why certain actions are taken. Make “why?” an elephant in the room. Use that to challenge suggestions and show your people to follow suit among themselves.
Listen. Watch. Keep your mouth shut more. Be more reluctant to show your cards. Let the group take charge of the discussion. It’s probable that you’ll find your team engaging in respectful debate if you’ll just let the room breathe, and not interfere. As much as you can, hold your peace. And if people get worked up and passionate, tread carefully in inserting yourself. Enthusiasm doesn’t gender strife. Don’t tolerate personal attacks or disrespectful behavior, but don’t be too quick to jump on an animated conversation. That’s precisely what you want to foster. You want people to care deeply about what they’re discussing and deciding.
Lastly, compliment vigorous dialogue and disagreement. Compliment the entire group, not merely those who others may view as contrarians. This isn’t about people always disagreeing with anything and everything. It’s about disagreement with a reason – a reason that must be expressed and understood by the group. It’s about fostering people’s passions, enthusiastic beliefs, and convictions. Make sure everybody keeps the goal in view – to generate the best ideas, best solutions and best decisions possible. Nothing else matters!
Be well. Do good. Grow great!