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Does disagreement bring out the best or worst in your people?

When it comes to deciding what's the best thing to do you'll inevitably have differences with those who don’t see the world the same way as you. Differences can divide people - think what’s happening across the political spectrum in Europe and the US currently. They put at risk the know-how needed to discuss differences productively.

In businesses, division costs. It limits what people are prepared to discuss and consider, so decisions get made based on only a small part of the picture. This wastes time, money and energy as teams go round in circles finding only temporary fixes to some long-standing problems.

The cause

Whilst dysfunctional systems, processes, policies etc. are often presented as the cause of waste, this is rarely at the root of the problem. People are.

We’re all prone to think unhelpfully about those we disagree with from time to time. Once we label someone, we’re unwittingly on the path to division and disagreement. It works like this:

  • A person notices an uncomfortable feeling about someone they disagree with.

  • They may not voice it, but they assign a label to the other in their head: an ineffective leader, a conniving manipulator, a tricky customer etc.

  • The other person reciprocates.

  • Either overtly or covertly both become wedded to the label and the assumptions that underpin it.

  • The foundations to give and take offence are laid.

  • When they have contact, they see each other through the labels they’ve assigned, and the feelings that arise seem justified and true.

  • Strong feelings - frustration, anxiousness, anger – over whatever the disagreement concerns build from here.

  • Caught up in emotions like these, the idea that they stem from the label seems absurd so it becomes increasingly difficult for either person to explore or be curious about the other’s ideas.

  • These exchanges ensure both parties have all the “evidence” they need for their views to become entrenched.

Leaders caught up in this path can’t resolve problems well. In worst cases they create silo mentalities that seem hard to break down. Unable to see the path at work they have little choice but to be engulfed by the strong emotions that support their side of the argument.

Another way

Understanding how the mind works gives leaders a choice at the very point when disagreements first arise. One choice is to follow the right vs. wrong path above. Another is to fully understand where a colleague is coming from. This is how this works:

  • Curiosity: leaders get curious about how the person they disagree with is seeing the situation. They know there are differences but want to understand what’s behind it. For example they wonder whether their colleague doesn’t ‘get’ something and needs more explanation or whether they don’t ‘like’ something and need their point of view heard and understood. They wonder whether there’s something else they’re not aware of that may be getting in the way.

  • Listening and empathising: they not only hear colleagues’ more clearly but empathise with them: knowing this is not the same as being forced to agree with them.

  • Respect and innovation: walking in others’ shoes engenders respect. It makes finding common ground easier. It creates space for new, innovative thinking that produces new answers not previously considered.

When clear minded, choosing this route is a no brainer for leaders interested in getting results and lifting the burden of disagreement from their mind. By embracing differences they build commitment to actions that sustain high performance.

The bad news is that when discussing important issues and qualities such as curiosity, empathy and respect are not present, disagreement is inevitable. And from here knowing whether you're heading in an uphill direction to positive outcomes or a downhill direction to ongoing challenges can be tricky.

The good news is these same qualities are innate. They’re part of being human, save for the thinking people do that prevents access to them.

Discover more in these short Insight Papers that tell you more about discussions that can mislead and the innate qualities you have to turn the problems they create around.

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