Profitable Disagreement

Profitable Disagreement – Season 2020, Episode 21

Is the ideal really full compliance and cooperation?

I suppose it depends on the situation. What’s the context of the group or team? What’s the purpose of their coming together? Lots of factors might influence how we approach things…and will influence our expectations, too.

First, we ought to define what we mean by compliance and cooperation. I can make the argument that full compliance and cooperation may not mean I agree with everything said. Or done. It may mean that I’m in such a safe space that I feel free to openly share my insights, concerns, and thoughts. I know many people might view it differently, thinking it means you just go along and don’t make waves. Without waves though, there’s no momentum. We have to work much harder to go anywhere until there are waves for us to surf.

Is the ideal being productive, effective, and efficient?

Could be. Likely true.

But full compliance and cooperation may not resemble being productive, effective, and efficient.

Some groups and teams put a premium on avoiding debate or tension of any kind. They see disagreement as destructive so their culture has little tolerance for it.

Those in charge – bosses – can easily fall into that trap, too. Fixating on what they feel is best and what they think needs to be done, the boss may be intolerant of opposing viewpoints. Many a boss has been frustrated by what they see as a lack of cooperation. It can even result in the loss of a well-intended productive employee if the boss grows too disgruntled.

The viewpoint is understandable. Most of us don’t have much fondness for disagreement because of our life experiences. We’ve seen people behave poorly. Maybe we’ve even behaved poorly ourselves. Many of us associate anger with disagreement, but that’s a very narrow view. Disagreement doesn’t have to include anger or any of the negative emotions we often associate with disagreement.

Let’s talk about what we lose when we can’t – or we refuse – to understand how disagreement can be profitable.


This presupposes that you value truth. We all claim we do, but sometimes we deceive ourselves preferring to avoid having our assumptions, beliefs or thoughts challenged. We know what we know. Or we think we do.

Fixating on tactics and strategies may help us execute more effectively, but nothing beats genuine kindness and curiosity.

We could find plenty of books and other training materials that would give us frameworks, templates and tactics. Lots of experts are willing to tell us how to go about conducting a meeting. Or having a conversation. But the net bottom line, it seems to me, is if some people in the group or team are jerks, then we have to deploy tactics to help mitigate their destructive power. What a waste of effort in the long haul?

Organizational behavior experts talk about gratitude and lower ego, but what if a person isn’t grateful? What if they truly do believe they’re the smartest person in the room? What if they don’t want to listen, much less, understand a point of view that is different from their own? What do you do then?

Craig Weber, the author of Conversational Capacity, appropriately points out we’ve got 3 choices when such a person is in charge. One, we can ignore them. Two, we can deploy strategies and tactics that may (heavy emphasis) help minimize their negative behavior. Three, we can hit the eject button and leave. Craig argues, if you’re going to leave, then you may as well use strategy number 2. What have you got to lose?

Sometimes it may be others besides the boss though. People who just don’t understand how disagreements can be valuable. Then what?

Such questions are impossible to distill into some neat tidy package, but I’m gonna try anyway. 😉 Every situation is different. The people in a group or team differ. So do bosses or those leading such groups. So permit me to restrict myself to things I know to be absolutely true through years of experience, and even then, be aware – these are hardly foolproof. They’re just things I hope can help you better figure out for yourself what may be best.

One, make up your mind you’ll be a leader in kindness. 

Brace yourself for a real truth – being kind is a competitive edge. That’s right. Choosing to be kind will set you apart from the crowd.

I honestly believe most people want to do the right thing, but I reserve the right to be wrong, too. Also, I’m painfully aware of human nature to compete, fight back, run/hide, be in charge, etc. Human behavior is reasonably predictable in that when push comes to shove, most of us will push and shove to get our way. By and large, selfishness is a curse everybody lives with. Some of us manage it or tame it better than others. Some of us aren’t even trying to curb it.

I’m wrapping up many different things under the single banner, kindness. Things like gratitude, humility, being genuine, being curious, understanding and compassion. Roll ’em all up and you’ve got kindness. Exclude any of them you negate kindness. In its place you insert self-centeredness, arrogance, conceit and pride. All of those are the enemy of kindness, which means – they’re more common than kindness. The reason is simple – it’s easier to embrace those behaviors than it is to behave with kindness. We can act with arrogance, conceit and pride without even thinking about it. But we have to work really hard (and concentrate a great deal) to maintain kindness.

You get to decide. Which is it going to be? Kindness, the road far less traveled? Or arrogance, the superhighway of humanity?

Kindness will not only serve YOU better, but it’ll help you serve others. Avoid kindness if those are unimportant to you.

Two, determine to understand.

The hard part is tapping the brakes long enough to forego quick conclusions or assumptions. Again, those are easy. By default, we can behave with those in the forefront. We naturally think if it’s our opinion, then it’s right. If your opinion differs from mine, then you’re wrong. All of us are prone to overvalue our own judgments while undervaluing the judgments of others. It’s the great divide in every endeavor, made most clear when we examine the national political scene in America.

Here’s the kicker. Don’t confuse curiosity and trying to understand with agreement. I know you’re fearful you might be asked to agree with somebody, but resist being a contrarian. Opt instead for trying to understand the other viewpoint. Work to learn WHY. Why do they think what they think? What makes them feel that way about something? Lean hard into your curiosity and if you don’t have much of it, then build it. Ask yourself how you’re hurt – in the least – by better understanding a person or their position on anything? Where’s the harm in it? On the flip side, consider the high (sometimes, the extraordinarily high) value of learning something you didn’t know before.

Three, respect what you understand. Enough to avoid easy dismissal.

Ask anybody who ever created something worthwhile about differing viewpoints and you’ll likely hear stories of how something that at first seemed unreasonable or ridiculous paid off after some consideration.

Here in the DFW area one of the more famous business tales is of Herb Kelleher, who helped found Southwest Airlines. Over drinks, Rollin King outlined for Herb an idea for the airline on the back of a cocktail napkin. One important detail is Herb’s directive to King, “Convince me.” Translation, “I’ll try to understand your business idea.”

What are you trying to understand? Maybe more importantly, what are you trying to avoid understanding?

The crux of it is likely this question – what are you afraid of? Why are you fearful of gaining greater understanding? Scared you’ll be convinced?

Don’t dismiss things because you don’t understand them. It’s fine if you choose to dismiss them because you do, but you can still do it in a way that fosters deeper discussion and dialogue.

Four, avoid hitting the shut down point.

The more you can discuss, the better. When discussion can no longer happen, you’ve hit the shut down point. And we all have one. It differs from person to person. My shut down point may not resemble yours, but we all have one. That place we reach where we say to ourselves, “I’m done.” When we reach that point we shut up and stop contributing. It’s just no longer worth the effort. To be ignored. To be ridiculed. To be judged. To be barked at. Or whatever other negative reactions we get to our thoughts, insights, opinions or feelings.

Handling disagreements while avoiding the shutdown point is THE key. Sadly, too many have that key missing from their ring.

It’s not so hard really. Simple things can help.

Instead of, “What? Are you crazy?” say “Explain more about it.” Or, “Tell us more.”

Instead of, “That’ll never work” say “Why might that work?”

Instead of anything confrontational or threatening – or even anything that might indicate your disagreement – aim the dialogue toward deeper understanding.

“Help us better understand why you feel that way.”

Ask questions to get more clarity on what’s being said.

Repeat back what you THINK you heard and then ask for confirmation, “Do I understand that correctly?”

Most of us have some understanding of the ways we can say things to avoid shutting others down…but the problem is, too frequently we WANT to shut them down. Especially if they don’t see it the way we do. But we all pay a heavy price for such behavior. We lose our best ideas. We prolong our problems and challenges. We delay brilliant solutions. We negate terrific opportunities. All because we’re too bull-headed and arrogant to listen, understand, and open our minds to the fact that there may be some better ideas than our own. Or there may be some opportunities for us to see things more clearly.

Over on Netflix during this pandemic, my wife and I watched a 10-part documentary series on The Innocence Project, a legal initiative aimed at freeing convicted felons who are innocent. A few of the episodes focused on the unreliability of eye witness testimony. Numerous stories illustrated the point with victims who were dead solid sure that the people they identified were the people who harmed them. Only years later, thanks to DNA testing, were proven to be innocent. The colossally high price paid by both the victim and the accused of decades spent in prison we demonstrated over and over again in the series. Imagine being a person who improperly identified somebody who spent 30 years in prison…only to find out, you were wrong. Imagine being imprisoned for 30 years all the while professing your innocence, but nobody listening…until somebody finally did.

People can get it wrong. We can all get it wrong. When the stakes are extremely high – like life or death or imprisonment. When the stakes are lower – like seizing a business opportunity. Or finding a solution to a career or business problem.

Contrary viewpoints can pressure test the truth. The truth can withstand it.

Disagreements can be profitable. We just have to open our eyes and our minds to see the value in it so we can foster it more and more.

Be well. Do good. Grow great!

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