Monday Mornings with Madison

Agreeable, Disagreeble and the Ability to Disagree

Most character traits can be a quality or a flaw, depending on the situation or circumstances.  A coworker who is very detail-oriented might also be considered nitpicky or persnickety.  An employee who is very communicative can also be perceived as being a chatty Cathy.  A boss who is very direct might also be seen as aggressive or blunt.  What is seen as a positive trait in one situation could just as easily be viewed as a personality failing in another situation. The truth is that every characteristic – even the negative ones — probably has value at the right time, place or in moderation but might also be problematic when applied in excess or in the wrong situation.

Take, for example, openness to new experience.   Openness distinguishes imaginative, creative people from down-to-earth, conventional people. Open people tend to be intellectually curious, appreciative of art, and sensitive to beauty. They tend to be more aware of their feelings as compared to closed-minded people. They also tend to think and act in individualistic and nonconforming ways.  Intellectuals tend to typically be open to new experiences.  Openness is often perceived as the healthier and more mature way of being. However, openness and closed-mindedness are useful in different environments. While openness may serve a professor well, research has shown that closed-minded thinking is tied to superior job performance for police officers, salespeople, and a number of service occupations.  In the right job or situation, openness can actually be a flaw and closed-mindedness can be a quality.

What about agreeableness?  It is hard to imagine how being agreeable could ever be considered a flaw.  Employers go out of their way when recruiting new employees to find individuals that are agreeable and will “go along to get along” with others in the organization.  Reference checks often focus less on validating the veracity of factual information and more on whether the person was agreeable and cooperative.  While being agreeable is generally considered a quality, there are situations where it can be a flaw.  Just as there are situations that call for being agreeable, there are also times and places that call for being able to disagree.  Of course, that’s not the same as being disagreeable.

Aspects of Agreeableness

Generally, a person who is agreeable also demonstrates a number of related sub-traits.  Consider these sub-traits as it relates to particular occupations such as accountant, salesperson, customer service rep or manager.  Would these sub-traits be an asset or a liability in certain jobs?

Trust – Agreeable people tend to trust others.

A person who has a high degree of trust in others assumes that most people are fair, honest, and have good intentions. Individuals low in trust may see others as selfish, devious, and potentially dangerous.  Consider:  Would it be beneficial for an accountant or compliance officer to be very trusting and think that everyone is fair and honest?

Cooperation – Agreeable people tend to be cooperative.

Individuals who are very agreeable also dislike confrontations. They are perfectly willing to compromise or to deny their own needs in order to get along with others. Those who are not as agreeable are more likely to intimidate others to get their way.  While cooperation seems a virtue, it may not necessarily be one for every situation or occupation.  Consider:  Would it be beneficial for a builder’s safety director to compromise on safety regulations in order to be liked and get along with the rest of the crew?

Modesty – Agreeable people tend to be modest.

Individuals who are very agreeable do not like to claim that they are better than other people.  Individuals who are not as agreeable find false modesty unseemly.  Indeed, those who are willing to describe themselves as superior tend to be seen as arrogant by others.  But is modesty always desirable in every person or occupation?  Consider:  Would it be helpful for a brilliant attorney to feign immodesty and not explain to a possible client how his expertise can help with a transaction or case?

Sympathy – Agreeable people also tend to be sympathetic.

Agreeable people are tender-hearted and compassionate. They feel the pain of others vicariously and are easily moved to pity.  People who are willing and able to disagree tend not to be as affected strongly by human suffering. Those people pride themselves on making objective judgments based on reason. They are more concerned with truth and impartial justice than with mercy.  Is sympathy always a desirable quality in every situation?  Consider:  Would a patient with a terminal illness be best served by a sympathetic doctor who, out of pity, withholds information and doesn’t allow the patient to get his affairs in order?

To Agree or Disagree?  That is the Question.

Overall, agreeableness reflects a desire for cooperation and social harmony. Agreeable individuals highly value getting along with others.  They are considerate, friendly, generous, helpful, and willing to compromise their interests. Agreeable people also have an optimistic view of human nature. They believe people are basically honest, decent, and trustworthy.

Individuals who are willing to disagree are less focused on getting along with others. They are able to set others’ feelings aside if the situation calls for it.  Sometimes their skepticism about others’ motives causes them to be suspicious, unfriendly, and uncooperative.  Of course, a willingness or ability to disagree does not mean permission to be rude or disrespectful.  To disagree is not the same as being disagreeable.  It is possible to disagree and not be rude.

Agreeableness is obviously advantageous for attaining and maintaining popularity. Agreeable people are better liked than people willing to disagree. However, agreeableness is useless in situations that require tough or absolute objective decisions. Those willing and able to disagree make excellent judges, scientists, critics, and soldiers.

Also, while companies like to surround themselves with people who agree with them, think like them, and support them, this is not necessarily a good thing.  Many companies fail because they have too many “Yes men” and get rid of anyone who disagrees with management.  Indeed, curbing dissent is one of management’s key failures.

Although we all want to work with people who are agreeable, sometimes a situation or occupation calls for a person who can disagree and isn’t afraid to voice dissent.  There are times and occasions that call for a measure of blunt honesty, a dose of unvarnished truth, a bit of arrogance or an ability and willingness to be confrontational.  While, in general, it is nice to work with agreeable people, employees willing and able to disagree do in fact serve a purpose.   As companies look to fill roles, it is important to consider whether agreeableness is actually a virtue or vice for the job.  Likewise, the wisest company leaders will seek those willing to voice their dissent and disagree openly in order to achieve the greater good.

Quote of the Week

“If you have learned how to disagree without being disagreeable, then you have discovered the secret of getting along – whether it be business, family relations, or life itself.” Bernard Meltzer


© 2014, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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