Monday Mornings with Madison

Business Etiquette: Agreeing to Disagree

The political scene that unfolded in the U.S. in 2016 brought into the spotlight how deeply people disagreed on key issues.   Disagreements became confrontational, aggressive and uncivil.  Private discussions and social media posts spilled into open public forums, rallies and protests.  It was particularly divisive and distasteful.

Disagreement can happen in any setting, from the political arena to the business environment.  But in a professional setting, there are rules and boundaries for how to share diverging viewpoints.  That is because impertinent, disrespectful and aggressive communication is counterproductive to teamwork and can undermine the creativity and efficiency of any organization.  When handled correctly, intelligent people can share ideas, disagree totally and still be able to work together effectively.   Here are some tips on how to handle disagreements.

An Open Atmosphere

At work, employees can and should engage each other in discussion. At meetings, colleagues are supposed to discuss ideas, reach decisions and obtain commitments.  In such exchanges, each member of the team needs to feel free to share, offer innovative ideas, assist with planning, and ultimately agree or disagree.  In fact, healthy disagreement is one of the hallmarks of a successful team. When constructive discussion and disagreement is absent, apathy and complacency can grow. That said, there is a right way and a wrong way to share diverging points of view.  Here are some tips on how to successfully and constructively disagree.

1. Pick battles wisely.

An employee who disagrees with everything will be seen as argumentative and disagreeable. That person might develop a reputation for being difficult and disagreeable.  Once that happens, even a reasonable objection will be viewed as just a part of the pattern.  Thus, it is important to be selective with which battles to fight.  Choose issues that affect outcomes and are substantial, meaningful, and important.

2.  Timing is everything.

Don’t have a discussion when angry, emotional, or upset.  Emotions can affect an employee’s professionalism, arguments or ability to present information clearly and logically. Emotions can also cause an otherwise dignified employee to go on the offensive, attacking, name-calling, or demeaning coworkers.  At any point in a disagreement, the goal is to stay calm.

3.  It is not personal.

Disagreement should not be personal. A disagreement with a coworker should not be based on an individual’s personality flaw.  It is not personal.  Disagreements should focus on facts, experience, intuition, prior team successes and failures, the track record on similar projects, and the organization’s culture.  Discussions should be remain impersonal and never include the word “you”.  Personal attacks are forbidden.

4. Before disagreeing, agree.

Before disagreeing, validate a coworker’s opinion. Identify the components in which both are in agreement and acknowledge the validity of that point of view.  Help the coworker feel listened to, heard, and understood, before listing points of disagreement.

5. R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Always be a consummate professional. Be respectful of coworkers. Disagreement can be cordial, yet candid and effective.  Never resort to manipulation or schemes.   Instead, try to understand a coworker’s needs, fears, and hopes.  Identify what is at stake and offer a solution to the problem or make a recommendation.   This is more likely to connect with coworkers.  Ask:

  • What is the real concern about the project?
  • What is bothering you about this current solution?
  • What has to occur for you to comfortably support a solution?
  • Are you comfortable with any aspects of this suggestion?

6. Do not speak for others.

When one employee tries to speak for others, it comes across as bullying.   A coworker might see it being ganged up on.

7.  Look at the big picture.

Step back from a particular job or task and try to see the big picture. To effectively disagree, an employee should look at the situation from a coworker’s functional point of view. The further up the Org Chart a person’s position is, the more important it becomes to look at each issue from a total organizational view.

8.  Keep an open mind.

It is vital to be open to new ideas and different ways of approaching problems.  It is always important to consider if the suggested way is the best way when other ways might obtain the same or an even better result.   In organizations, employees who can think about optimizing for the whole organization are those who are promoted.

Also, just because something was tried and didn’t work in the past, doesn’t mean that it won’t this time. The problem may be slightly different. The players may be different. Even the will to make the solution work may have changed.  Keep an open mind to differing ideas.

9.  Every opinion is valid.

Avoid interrogating coworkers. Asking questions to understand a coworker’s viewpoint is appropriate. Throwing out an unending stream of questions to trip the person up, confuse the issue, or undermine the person is not. It is also insulting and childish. Instead, an employee should simply state the facts and share knowledge.  Bring to the table any experience, expertise, knowledge, and any data that might support a direction. Talk about them to move a team forward.

10.  Identify common ground.

Even if there is disagreement on the finer points, speak to common interests and needs. Focus a discussion on shared interests and desired outcomes. Coworkers who feel they are headed in the same direction or have a shared outcome in mind are less likely to disagree about how to get there.

11. Step into another’s shoes.

Try to see a coworker’s point of view. In a successful disagreement, coworkers should be able to state clearly the other side’s position on the issue.  A colleague who cannot do that is not listening and may not really understand the other viewpoint.

12. Don’t judge.

It is never okay to put down a coworker’s beliefs, interests, or ideas. It is fine to disagree with coworkers without discrediting or repelling what they value.  Showing disrespect for a colleague’s ideas or position is inappropriate anywhere but especially at work. Making fun is even worse.  Beware that gentle teasing is also wrong.

13.  Compromise.

Compromise when necessary. There may not be agreement on everything, but don’t let that fact prevent reaching a general agreement on a direction or a solution. In an organization, doing nothing is not an option just because the perfect solution has not been found.  At times, every coworker will need to agree to disagree on some aspect of a solution or plan.  Just make sure conceded items are tolerable.

Ultimately, the goal is not to “win” an argument but to clear the air in any disagreement and ensure that issues have been carefully discussed and thought about deeply.  If there is no way to achieve agreement, then respectfully agree to disagree.   Disagreement can be difficult. The key is that following all of the talking; all players must support and own the decisions reached so that employees are not pulling in different directions, second guessing decisions, or sending mixed messages to coworkers and customers.  The other key is to keep the relationship with colleagues intact so that the team can continue to work together.

Quote of the Week

“Opposition is a natural part of life. Just as we develop our physical muscles through overcoming opposition – such as lifting weights – we develop our character muscles by overcoming challenges and adversity.” Stephen Covey


© 2016, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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