When It Comes To Work, Let’s Agree It’s Ok To Disagree
When it comes to the workplace, when did we become so obsessed with going along to get along? Somewhere along the way, we became afraid to show a healthy dose of disagreement. We have become so obsessed with “teamwork” and so frightened of being viewed or labeled as “difficult” that we have forgotten how to respectfully disagree, how to offer constructive criticism, and how to offer— and then listen to—contrarian points of view. So strong is our desire to be accepted and not offend that we hold back on true opinions and feelings, lest we be viewed in a negative light. We have lost sight of how valuable critical, civil discourse is and how sound decision-making is improved by looking at and weighing all the options.
This practice of going along to get along permeates discussions in the boardroom, in the C-Suite and the corporate conclave. We choose directors for corporate boards who are individuals “we can work with,” which is essentially code for “not a trouble maker.” The description of someone as “a great team player” has become ubiquitous, trite and meaningless—and there is no consideration given to the idea that someone who disagrees and offers alternate points of view could also be a valuable team member.
The high price of peace
Whether it’s performance reviews that are all too glowing and devoid of substantive, constructively critical input, or tactical and strategic corporate decisions that are greeted solely with lively, enthusiastic concurrence, we seem destined to miss critical opportunities to promote improvement, bring about change, or mitigate future turbulence, if not catastrophe.
I’m not advocating for conference room free-for-alls or boardroom brawls, but for healthy debate and a welcoming forum for new ideas. Otherwise we risk complacency at best, and malfeasance at worst. Remember BlackBerry (formerly Research in Motion), the Canadian maker of the once-mighty and dominant handheld? In 2003 RIM revolutionized communication with its highly secure device that offered us e-mail on our phones. At its zenith, the company was selling about 50 million units a year.
Thanks to Apple’s game-changing iPhone and devices operating on the Android system, the cellular market went through a drastic transformation. BlackBerry’s senior management famously and publicly dismissed the threat from the iPhone as being of “no relevance.” True, BlackBerry is waging an impressive battle to reinvent itself after spending several years in the wilderness, but it begs the question: was there no one willing to challenge the notion that the iPhone was of “no relevance?”
Taking a wrong turn
Sometimes the mass concurrence is covering up issues that may be unethical, or illegal. In 2015 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a notice of violation to the German automaker Volkswagen for intentionally and deliberately cheating emission testing. Some 11 million cars were impacted and Volkswagen has paid $21 billion in fines and compensation in North America. Criminal charges have been filed against a number of employees, including the former CEO and chairman of the board. One could argue that concurrence of this type and scope is evidence of cultural rot and is rare. I can’t speak for Volkswagen, but I feel confident that it wasn’t a place where dissension was encouraged or applauded.
From my own experience, I know how easy it is to take the path of least—or no—resistance. Early in my career I was part of the “go along” crowd. Our then-CEO was hungry for growth, so he commissioned some high-priced help to assist with a strategic plan. The investment bankers were only too eager to scour the country for deals and were advised to find something “water related but non-regulated.” The CEO was convinced that the regulated utility sector was insufficiently “sexy,” and so we settled on an environmental testing lab company. We didn’t quite bet the farm but we significantly overreached, increasing the size of the company by some 40% and adding considerable debt.
The courage of dissent
The idea, if it had been thoroughly vetted, with contrarian views considered, would have never survived. It was an utter disaster and within three years resulted in an embarrassing write-down at shareholders’ expense, and a sale of the company at a fraction of what we bought it for. However, the entire senior team had gone along with the CEO’s idea, as did the Board of Directors—every one of them. I had significant doubts, but at the time I justified my silence by telling myself that I was far too inexperienced to voice any concern, and with all the talent around the table, surely my assessment was wrong.
I learned two vital points from that experience. First, to disagree you must first understand what is being presented, and I am convinced that most of the individuals around the table who consented to the CEO’s idea did not understand what they were agreeing to. Secondly, it takes courage to offer dissent, especially in the face of an ebullient current of consensus.
Where to from here
A new construct is required, one that views tactful yet substantive and truthful commentary as a necessary contribution toward the end goal. The benefits of substantive discourse will accrue to the organization, its products and services, and the customers they serve. There are three factors that must be present in order for this to work:
- A culture that encourages and supports the give and take of respectful, critical commentary as a means of enhancing individual performance, contributing to better ideas, and/or building a work product or service that is ready for market. Most organizations fall far short on this front, as the majority of corporate cultures neither encourage nor permit such dialogue.
- Managers that are well trained in the art of constructive dialogue and who are “comfortable in their own skin”: Substantive, candid, and respectful dialogue will only be fostered in an environment where managers are not only comfortable with such discourse, in fact, they seek it out.
- Employees who seek out substantive feedback. All others need not apply. With a supporting culture in place and a managerial team embracing the way forward, individual employees have a vital role to play in seeking, accepting, and giving feedback on an ongoing basis. Encouraging respectful dissent within the mother ship, and recruiting new hires that would fit such a culture, would be a significant step in the right direction.
The decisions we make, the strategies we execute, and the products and services we bring to market are all enhanced by the kind of vigorous discussion that transcends complete, harmonious agreement. Conflict is a natural and inevitable part of our earthly existence and avoiding it usually only exacerbates the problem. Finding a better way behooves us as organizational leaders.