Differences in opinions and even conflict are a common part of work life nowadays.
For most people – including leaders – disagreement is usually seen as unpleasant and something to try and avoid. Problems typically associated with disagreement include damaged relationships between people; feelings of frustration; upset or even anger; reduced levels of motivation; declines in trust, confidence and communication between people; and poorer levels of collective performance.
Disagreement can be good
Actually, enabling a degree of healthy disagreement and debate between colleagues can be very useful – if handled well. Positive outcomes can include the following: surfacing of a greater number and range of ideas; stronger bonds and levels of trust between people; higher levels of motivation and engagement as people feel they have a voice and are involved in decision-making; and improved learning and creativity contributing to change and better, overall (team or organisational) performance levels.
So what can leaders do to achieve such significant benefits? What can be done to handle disagreements in a positive, healthy way?
Below are some wide-ranging suggestions. Firstly, some pointers for how a leader should prepare and then manage a meeting or discussion where disagreement is expected; secondly, some good, general habits for us all as indviduals to handle disagreement better; and, thirdly, what organisations can do usefully around issues like culture and leadership style.
Leaders’ preparation for a meeting with disagreement
1)…Before the meeting, the leader (or facilitator) should carefully think and plan ahead how best to run the session. Key factors to consider include: ensuring there’s a clear definition of the core challenge or problem to be addressed; identifying what range of issues need to be discussed and what useful data or documents will be helpful to refer to; design of a suitable meeting structure, agenda and approach for each issue (particularly contentious issues); and definition of some key criteria to guide decision-making.
2) Consider in advance the personalities and relationships between participants. The leader should consider the relative power of all attendees and likely group dynamics, so he/she can plan how to ‘democratise’ the room by balancing-out power.
3) Consider/check that the right people will be involved in the meeting and, if not, adjust. Consider not only if there will be an adequate/appropriate level of knowledge about what is to be discussed but also if there will be a decent balance and representative range of opinions.
4) Ahead of a contentious meeting, circulate factual, informative reading regarding key items on the agenda – so discussion on the day will be less based on ignorance or false assumptions. Also, ask participants not only to consider what claims and arguments they themselves will have in mind or want to make, but to use the pre-reading to help them consider issues more roundly by identifying other viewpoints.
5) Participants should ideally know each other before a debate/discussion – even if it’s just a short opportunity to introduce each other. This obviously helps to build a feeling of mutual trust and respect from the start and so make the feel and tone of the meeting a bit more friendly and less tense. A very helpful measure, for example, is to get participants to have a shared meal together.
Leader’s handling of the discussion
6) Open the session with a strong introduction that ‘frames’ the overall meeting and prepares everyone to work together: including a reminder of the background and objectives of the meeting; a run-through of the agenda; and, crucially, a reminder of participants’ common aims/interests (for example, “we’re all on the same team here” or “our shared goal is to find the best we can to …..” together with some ‘ground rules’ for the meeting i.e. pointers about how participants should behave.
7) Examples of some typically strong ground rules are: all viewpoints are equal and welcome; one person to speak at a time; refrain from side-conversations; listen to and respect other points of view; seek to understand the pros and cons of every option, not just those you prefer; no one or two individuals should dominate a discussion; let others speak if you’ve already spoken; when you speak, try to be concise and don’t meander from the topic at hand; and always be polite and never let things get personal.
8) During discussions the leader should focus on ensuring everyone has a chance to give their views, particularly drawing out contributions from quieter individuals or individuals with ‘minority’ or dissenting views. At the same time, leaders should try and avoid indicating too much their own views (especially at the very start of a session) in order to avoid ‘leading’ others’ thinking. This is part of the leader’s vital role of ensuring ‘psychological safety’ in the meeting for participants – see point 17 below.
9) During discussions, the leader needs further, strong facilitation skills, including: ensuring participants stay focused on-topic; that a decent range and balance of views is aired; that unclear or inaccurate points are challenged; surfacing any critical arguments or facts that partipants have avoided referring to; allowing but ‘managing’ likely tension on some issues; and, crucially, ensuring discussion moves forward (e.g. summarising key points at regular points) and checking participants reach a final conclusion.
General individual habits
10) Be intellectually humble and open-minded. For a discussion to be productive, participants need to be willing to respect every viewpoint and to change their minds if/when they come across better arguments or information. Although people generally approach disagreements hoping to persuade the other side, it’s actually more helpful usually to go into discussions focused on learning and seeking an overall positive result together (and to assume that colleagues share that goal too). With this mindset, people move from judgement-focused to being more open to understanding others’ positions.
Useful tips include: respect every person and their right to their viewpoint, even if you disagree; admit when you realize you’re wrong or when others have made good points; don’t take things personally; and stay curious: even bad ideas can be useful and help lead to new and better ideas!
11) Keep to facts and reasoned argument: It’s important to keep a discussion based around facts, evidence and reasoned argument as much as possible. Unfortunately, it’s often the case that when people feel strongly or defensive about their opinions, they can present facts that aren’t really true, make claims or arguments that are not based on logical reasoning, emphasize points that are really personal interpretations or experiences rather than objective facts, they can get overly emotional, or they bring in outside issues to bolster their points and distract others from key arguments. Everyone needs to try and be vigilant, so none of these ‘bad’ behaviours sneak into the discussion.
12) Listen actively to others to understand their position (sometimes called ‘perspective-taking’). Firstly, this means listening with focused presence and attention (watching your verbal and non-verbal communication) as the other person speaks; and secondly, showing empathy by seeking and demonstrating appreciation of the other’s viewpoint, particularly the reasons behind their views. Two useful ways to help show empathy are asking clarifying questions and at intervals paraphrasing or summarising what the other person has said. Being empathetic also means being willing to learn or accept perhaps some information or ideas raised by the other party which you have not previously considered.
13) Build a ‘bridge’ before arguing back: When someone shares an opinion you disagree with, thank him/her and acknowledge any aspects of the view you appreciate or find constructive and only then give your own argument. This compares with the common approach taken in arguments of immediately ‘poking holes’ in the other person’s argument. The ‘bridging’ tack makes people feel more heard and valued, they perceive more common ground, find the conversation more collaborative, and the chances of reaching a joint conclusion are thus improved.
14) Use language carefully that signals you’re receptive to different views. Soften your claims and assertions to sound less extreme: use words like “sometimes” or “perhaps” and phrases like “I think it’s possible that ….” or “some people might think that …”; acknowledge others’ perspectves with phrases like “I see your point” and “I understand that you believe …”; emphasize areas of actual agreement e.g. “I think we both want to ….” and “we are both concerned with ….”; and reframe your ideas with emotionally- positive words e.g. “I think it’s great that …..”.
15) Use integrative, not ‘either/or’ thinking: Unfortunately, when facing a choice or decision, humans often naturally think in terms of a polarised choice between just two options – either option one or option two. Entertaining a wide choice frame feels more complicated and riskier, which human brains naturally try and avoid! In the context of an argument ot discussion with other people, this tendency typically turns into the ‘I’m right, you’re wrong‘ attitude where the focus is on ‘winning’ at the expense of the other party.
A far better goal in most debates would be for participants to avoid such narrow ‘oppositional’ thinking and instead adopt a more open, flexible and creative mindset that is ready to consider a wider frame of additional, potential ideas and options. Associated with such a mindset is the ability to look for a choice that could cleverly or creatively combine good features from an initial set of just two options to arrive at a different, more original and superior third-way: such thinking is sometime called ‘both/and thinking’ or integrative thinking and deserves to be used much more in debates and discussions.
A supportive organisational culture
16) Establish a culture that welcomes diversity of views: To underpin constructive behaviour by employees in handling dissent, it’s vital their organisation shows it positively welcomes differences in opinions and, equally, expects employees to be receptive to and respectful of others’ views. Examples of helpful organisational policies include: a stress on diversity and equity in HR policies; managers adopting a strongly ‘inclusive‘ leadership style; recognition and reward for staff who raise promising ideas/suggestions; strong collaborative working and open relationships between departments and functions across the organisation; ready investigating or testing of new ideas; tolerance of failure in experiments of new ideas; and strong support for employee learning and development.
17) Ensure good ‘psychological safety’ for people to speak up: Employees need to feel secure and at ease when, if they raise an idea or opinion, they won’t face retribution or embarrassment. Within a supportive organisational culture, team leaders have a key responsibility in this regard.
Examples of helpful tactics they can adopt are: fostering an open atmosphere in team meetings (by for example using a friendly, encouraging tone and manner); ensuring everyone has an equal chance to speak, particularly encouraging/helping shy or less confident participants; showing genuine curiosity and interest when listening to each person’s views; not allowing any overly critical or aggressive criticism of any person’s views by others; thanking individuals for providing their insight or viewpoint after they have expressed it; and keeping a feeling of shared connection amongst participants by, for example, using the word ‘we’ a lot (certainly rather than saying ‘I’ a lot).
18) Establish policies and principles to guide discussion and decision-making: To help achieve productive debate and disagreement, organisations should define a range of ‘good practice‘ guidelines for collective thinking, problem-solving and decision-makking, which all employees – particularly managers – are expected to follow. Examples of some key factors to cover are: careful definition of the core issue/problem; what parameters are to be considered; definition and ranking of criteria to be used for evaluating choices (e.g. risk tolerance); does urgency mean that it’s better for management to be directive; and what range of people need to be involved or consulted.
19) Make use of analytical and deliberative tools: To support collective discussion and decision-making – particularly by helping to widen thinking, raise objectivity, and mitigate groupthink – managers should be encouraged to consider applying some suitable ‘cognitive support’ tools and techniques. These include various creative thinking techniques, analytical methods, group dialogue and thinking methods, choice/decision appraisal tools (e.g. pre-mortems) and action/project planning techniques.
20) Leverage well the role of senior managers, particularly female managers! A vital part of an organisational culture that seeks to deal optimally with dissent is ensuring its executives act as strong role models in exhibiting appropriate attitudes, behaviour and skills – for example, showing intellectual humility and using ‘receptive’ language and listening skills in team meetings. Female managers, in particular, research has found, more typically exhibit such traits in their social interactions compared to their male peers. So, when feasible, perhaps assign women to lead meeting/conversations where the topic is going to be contentious and, if training time and budget are limited, focus receptiveness training on your male managers!