The best leadership teams make the most of diverse expertise, knowledge and perspectives to make informed and considered decisions, particularly in complex situations. All too often, leadership teams are unable make high-quality decisions because they either avoid disagreements or clash due to differences in views. Many fear that disagreement represents conflict and, as such, may be potentially destructive. Some see it as a waste of time and energy. Others opt for a debate and end up creating tension and conflict. The opportunity being missed is ‘productive disagreement’.
My Leaders Who Listen colleagues, Anna Reeve and Dr Leigh Gassner APM and I have been working with a few courageous leaders who see the value in, and indeed are willing to invite, productive disagreement in their leadership teams.
It is courageous to invite productive disagreement because as a leader, it is generally easier to surround yourself with people who agree with you. It is quicker and you usually get your way which can feel good. You don’t have to rethink what you’ve thought about already, nor do you have to work through uncomfortable conversations.
However, there are dangers in this approach, including:
- Failing to make truly informed decisions.
- People stop raising concerns or ideas.
- Diversity of ideas disappears, resulting in lack of innovation.
- Views that do not ‘fit’ go underground, such that people may overtly or covertly undermine the direction.
- Relationships weaken, as communication becomes surface-level and transactional.
- The risk of reputational damage increases, as avoidable issues are not raised, listened to or addressed.
To enable two-way, open communication, we need to be open to different viewpoints and engage in productive disagreements.
When done well, this can be an energising and creative conversation that leads to breakthroughs and strengthened relationships. It feels different to the usual hum drum of meetings and feels like it was worth coming together to have the conversation as a leadership team. Additionally, when individuals feel that their opinions are valued and heard, they feel that their contributions matter, and that the team is having important, meaningful discussions. This results in a more positive and inclusive team environment.
Why is Productive Disagreement Difficult to Do Well?
Despite the many benefits of productive disagreement, it is not always easy to achieve, for reasons including:
- Fear of conflict: Many individuals shy away from conflict, as they are worried about damaging relationships or creating a negative team dynamic.
- Groupthink: When teams are too polite and focused on maintaining harmony, it can lead to a lack of critical thinking and an inability to challenge assumptions.
- Power dynamic: Without realising, groups get swayed by those with greater perceived power, whether due to positional power or expertise, relational power or other less tangible sources of power.
- Rushing: Whether it’s a packed agenda or a drive to be efficient, rushing through conversations that matter actually ends up slowing things down, as often the same conversation needs to be had again, or the real issues and root causes remain unaddressed.
- Confirmation bias: People are often more likely to seek out information that supports their existing beliefs and preferences, rather than considering alternative viewpoints.
- The need to be ‘right’: Some of us become stubborn or get stuck in binary, either/or thinking when faced with alternative views, stop listening and focus on defending what feels ‘right’.
- Insufficient awareness and skillsets: It takes higher levels of awareness and skill to pause, listen rather than react to views that are different to yours and engage in dialogue.
By understanding what makes productive disagreement difficult, we can be more deliberate in creating conditions that allow it and even welcome it.
What Conditions Are Needed for Productive Disagreements?
For disagreements to be productive, there are two broad conditions that need to be in place: safety and space.
Dr Amy Edmondson and Tim Clark and other authors on psychological safety describe psychological safety as the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. They also state that it is not about feeling comfortable and not being challenged.
Given most of us fear conflict, it is crucial that we make a norm to bring up different views or disagree. Fears include the risk that we may be humiliated, that we might damage relationships or that we may make a ‘career limiting move’ by speaking up. These fears can drive us to maintain a surface level of harmony and result in groupthink.
This fear can be redirected to the fear of not having important conversations, that is, the increased risk of failing to achieve collective goals or of making avoidable mistakes.
Disagreements handled skillfully actually build psychological safety, as it shows people that it is okay to disagree and that relationships can and do remain strong.
People in leadership positions have an outsized impact on the feeling of safety in a group. Their self-awareness of power dynamics, their impact of their behaviours, self-regulation, humility, curiosity and observation of others’ reaction to their presence, are all critical in building and maintaining safety.
The second condition that needs to be in place for productive disagreement is space, which in our view does not get considered or discussed enough. We have found that leadership teams often avoid important conversations more due to lack of space than safety.
We define space in three ways:
- Time/airtime: slowing down for important discussions and sharing airtime among members.
- Energetic space: being present, taking in what people share, listening beyond words. Energetic space cannot be created when we are mindlessly rushing and distracted.
- Mental spaciousness: being open to different views, including those you may disagree with and being influenced by them. Mental spaciousness requires a great deal of discipline and courage to counter confirmation bias and the need to be right.
Without space, even if people feel psychologically safe, diversity of thought is not harnessed and quieter voices may not get heard, important conversations may get cut short, and people may not be present or open enough to listen and think about what others have said.
With space, high quality listening and appreciation of differences, we often discover that what appears to be strong disagreement is not such a big chasm, or that we find an even better solution because of the different views being considered.
Interestingly, our experience and the data we have gathered has found that lack of space is a bigger issue than lack of safety in leadership teams.
Reflecting on your leadership team:
- Do you and your leadership team have sufficient safety and space to have productive disagreements?
- Does your leadership team have the skillsets and mindsets to have productive disagreements?
- What is the avoidance of disagreement, or unproductive disagreement, costing you, your team and the organisation?
Written by Megumi Miki, with Anna Reeve and Leigh Gassner, co-founders of Leaders who Listen. We aim to develop leaders who create a listening environment of safety and space within their organisations to enable better decision making, drive growth and innovation, enhance collaboration and inclusion, and manage risk. If you’d like to understand how your leadership team can engage in productive disagreements, contact us about our Leaders who Listen assessment tools, presentations, masterclasses and development programs.