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Embracing Productive Disagreements

A workplace in which there are no disagreements isn't healthy. In fact, it's a red flag.

Still, most of us generally prefer to avoid disagreements, and many of us don’t know how to disagree comfortably. We associate disagreement with conflict, aggression, rudeness, or feeling uncomfortable and awkward. 

As Amy Gallo points out, agreeing with someone is usually easier or faster in the short term. If someone continually disagrees with us, we’re likely to label them as “difficult.” That’s not to say there are no difficult people, because there definitely are. Some people disagree with “everyone” most of the time (not productive) and some people speak from a position of entitlement (due to privilege and/or ignorance).

An MIT Sloan survey of 6,000 tech employees found that 17.5% of them do not speak up at all to their managers. Company culture can be a deterrent to speaking up, which means that leaders don’t ever get the full “truth” from employees, leading to bad decisions and/or decisions made with incomplete data.

BCG talks about the concept of decision spin, which is when decisions “bounce around the company, from group to group and up and down the hierarchy, frequently accompanied by requests for more analysis or options.” Sound familiar? People leave meetings seemingly agreed on a plan, but nothing happens, and often “it is not unexpected factors that hamper success but known factors that were either not surfaced or not taken seriously.”

Another outcome of cultures where disagreement is avoided is that there can be a huge gap in how leaders think things are going (people are engaged and productive) and how things are really going (people are frustrated, quietly disengaged, and decisions are made in silos). Leaders who only want good news or opinions that agree with their own are not great leaders. 

The Benefits of Disagreeing 

Productive disagreement happens in a psychologically safe environment, in which people feel comfortable that others see things differently and that talking through different points of view can lead to better outcomes.

This can be very beneficial for people and the companies they work for: 

Creative friction. When you have more perspectives in play, that friction can help you arrive at solutions that are better thought through. You can expect be better at mitigating risks, and boast a higher innovation quotient. It will also lead to some great hypotheses to be tested. 

Opportunities for learning and growth. We can learn in situations where our ideas our challenged. Disagreements are opportunities to get better at listening to others, incorporating feedback, and developing new ways to interact with colleagues and managers. 

Better work relationships. This seems counterintuitive, but we often become closer after working through a conflict with a colleague (as long as the view of it is that you made it through a productive disagreement and came out the other side). 

Higher job satisfaction. When you are comfortable and confident that you can express disagreement and still be “okay” at work, you are likely to be more satisfied with your work situation. There’s a sense that everyone is able to contribute to overall performance. 

More inclusive work environment. Embracing diversity means more productive disagreement and less consensus (and that’s a good thing). Conflicts of ideas or perspectives encourage creativity and productivity, as well as transparency.

The Challenges of Making Disagreements Productive 

Leadership coach Lynn Harris calls productive disagreement “foundational to team and organizational performance.” Without it, it’ll be hard for teams to achieve the results they want.

Some of the challenges to productive disagreements are: 

Our brains. Fight or flight responses can get triggered because we experience disagreements as threats. We might respond by being defensive or avoiding it at all costs. 

Social norms. Social norms fuel our preference to avoid conflict and disagreement. Company culture may reinforce these norms for the sake of moving fast, or for united goals and actions. In the opposite way, social norms also teach us that there will be a winner and a loser. This is another reason why people might avoid disagreement altogether, especially if they think they will “lose.” 

Negativity bias. We hold onto negative emotions/thoughts much harder and longer than pleasant or neutral ones. When it comes to disagreements, we expect the outcomes or experience will be more negative than they likely will be. Harris says you should ask yourself, “If it were me, would I want the truth, and would I be able to take it?” If it’s true for you, then it’s probably true for others. 

Experience. For some of us, productive disagreement is a skill that needs to be developed.  Managers can help provide good conditions for practice by setting up High Challenge/High Support environments, and we can practice by participating in discussions (not sitting it out) and getting better at listening to perspectives as they are offered. 

Getting Better at Productive Disagreement 

You don’t need to be liked all the time or by everyone. It’s natural to want to be liked, but it shouldn’t be the most important thing all of the time. This is especially true as you move up in seniority. Managers who try to be “friends first” are not successful in the long term. In a piece for Harvard Business Review, Joel Garfinkle says it’s better to focus on respect (giving and earning it) instead of likability. If you keep respect in mind during disagreements, then conversations can remain “mutually supportive.” 

Understand your personal reactions and default behaviors when it comes to disagreements. Certain topics might make you more anxious than others, or some work decisions will feel more personal than others. Being more self-aware of your own fears and triggers can help you to be willing to try something else – like asking questions that invite surprising answers or participating in a more neutral/open way. 

Focus on the big picture. Productive disagreements should focus on processes, decisions, objectives, or ideas. Personal attacks are not productive. When we are having healthy discussions, we should be focused on wanting what’s best for customers and est for the business. It’s not about proving who is right. 

Focus on what you have to learn. Not with the intent of proving your point and persuading the other side. In one HBR study, when offered a “debate” partner who disagreed with their point of view, 78% of participants preferred a partner who was willing to learn about their views vs. someone who was going to try to persuade them to the other point of view. Interestingly, we are more likely to think we are willing to learn but others only want to persuade us. 

You can still be kind/friendly and disagree. Many people who are uncomfortable with disagreeing with someone say they are afraid of being a jerk or hurting someone’s feelings, says Gallo. Often that’s more in your head than in reality – most people will be okay with hearing a different perspective as long as the conversation stays genuinely respectful. Sometimes what follows when someone says “with all due respect” is anything but. 

Be mindful of how you do it. Aim to be direct and honest about your opinions while being “warm” with the other person. This is possible. Staying open to hearing other opinions will help you to be less aggressive in your approach, and tying your opinion to business needs will help to keep the conversation about shared goals and outcomes. Acknowledge and name any common ground you have with the other person as a way to keep the conversation grounded and productive. 

Use data wisely. Buster Benson has a great suggestion: Rather than trying to reduce disagreements down to data as in “the data proves my point, so I’m right and you’re wrong,” try making predictions about what’s going to happen, i.e., hypotheses that can be tested with agreed-upon data.  This is productive data that will give you insights beyond opinion or retroactive/cherry -picked data. Now you have a learning opportunity instead of a win-lose scenario.

Treat disagreement as a creative force. If the conditions and people are primed for productive disagreement, you can use it to bring more creative approaches to a given challenge/project. Strategist Ian Leslie says it works when people agree to push the disagreements as far as they can to expose new lines of questioning or counterintuitive ideas. Just be sensitive to when the productivity curve drops off and it’s time to make a decision.

Disagree and commit. Consensus isn’t always desirable, nor should it be the overriding goal. However, ‘disagree and commit’ is an important principle that says people are allowed to disagree while a decision is being made, but once a decision is made, everybody must commit to it. If you are one of those people that are tenacious about being right to the point of disregarding decisions that aren’t aligned with your opinion, you are hurting yourself professionally and interpersonally.

Some Advice for Leaders

Set productive disagreement as a value. Be transparent that it is an expected and useful way of working. This aligns with the Volaris corporate values of data-based decision making and our culture of learning.

Prioritize debate and diverse perspectives in the early stages of major initiatives and change management. We often seek alignment too quickly.

Do it yourself. If you embrace productive disagreement by asking for other perspectives on key decisions, it demonstrates how you want others to behave. You can be transparent about contrarian points of view when sharing how a decision was made to show that the process is not a unilateral one.

Check yourself. BCG offers up this question: Do you get the truth from employees without resorting to anonymous surveys? If the answer is no, there is some work to do. If your primary drivers in discussions are that you like to be right, to be the smartest person in the room, and to “win” every argument, you will never hear everything you need to hear.

As Ian Leslie says, “It doesn’t matter if you are right. It matters if we are right.”

About the Author

As VP, Corporate Knowledge at Volaris Group, Sherry works closely with all of our organizations to capture & share best practices through peer programs, special sessions, portals, and communities. She also oversees Volaris Group platforms, technologies, and strategies that support our collaborative culture.

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