How to Disagree Intelligently At Work

One of the large differences I see between technical/scientific people and laymen is in the communication style that critiques or disagreements are offered. Disagreeing with other people in an effective and respectful way is an extremely difficult skill that takes considerable guts to practice.

For the most part, people find disagreeing with each other as difficult and uncomfortable, and use watered-down and less effective language as a result. Some people have the opposite problem, where they are too willing to disagree with others tactlessly without really considering why they disagree in the first place. The prior style of disagreement leads to miscommunication and unfixed problems, whereas the latter leads to bruised egos and frayed team morale.

There’s clearly a big incentive to disagree effectively. Needless to say, there are many possible ways of delivering the sentiment of disagreement correctly and incorrectly. Certain personalities and dispositions are biased toward certain disagreement styles. The scale of disagreement matters too, as a technical dispute may be easier to resolve than a philosophical spat. This article pertains to both of those disagreements, though I think the technical spats are generally easier to resolve quickly as it’s possible to conduct experiments and determine which technical option is better. I’ll characterize ineffective ways of disagreeing and offer a few smarter methods in this article. First, it makes sense to elaborate on exactly what disagreement is in a professional context.

What is disagreement? I will define disagreement as an inconsistent opinion between parties. If an opinion is consistent among all parties, there is consensus. In a professional context, disagreement is a communication modality that is  found within teams or pairs of individuals. Communication modalities are fluid, and are emergent from the interactions between individuals that make up a group. A group made of particularly cantankerous individuals will likely be in the modality of disagreement far more than a group of shy people. Do not take this as a suggestion to form teams of compliant people: disagreement is how bad ideas are destroyed before they cause real damage, and a team is empowered by strong ideas. Disagreement can be essential pruning when used properly.

So, our understanding of disagreement is that  it’s a pattern of communication resulting from inconsistent opinions on a given issue. Much of our time spent in meetings is actually spent trying to jostle the group’s current communication modality from  disagreement to consensus. We may even decide to form groups based off of how much or little the members of the group are likely to have internal agreement or disagreement, though an excess of either is likely to be harmful for the actual output of the group.

One of the functions of leaders in the workplace is to try to circumvent a state of disagreement via executive action– though a definitive ruling will typically allow for work to continue despite the disagreement, it rarely actually resolves the dispute at hand and is frequently akin to the ego-bruising too-direct style of disagreement in terms of damage caused to the team.

Instead of promoting coping strategies for leaders to use in an attempt to ease the pain of being overruled, I think it’s much more effective for leaders to ease disputes via consensus building rather than default to authority’s power. Part of moving the team from disagreement to consensus is  accepting that opinions are malleable and subject to extreme change under the right conditions.  In order for the leader and group members to move toward consensus, effective disagreement is critical.

Ineffective disagreement:

  • Uses personal attacks against others, even if they aren’t present
  • Prompts negative defensive reactions from others via indirect criticism or passive aggression
  • Appeals to office politics or the sanctity of individual fiefdoms
  • Denies or neglects unchangeable frameworks or obstacles
  • Asserts incompetence of other people or groups that will be relied on, even if it’s true
  • Denies attempts to refine points of disagreement
  • Dismisses disagreement as irrelevant without explaining why
  • Breaks group up via factional lines instead of individual opinion
  • Is delivered shortly, bluntly, and without true consideration of the facts
  • Does not rally facts and data to support statements
  • Is delivered agitatedly or emotionally
  • Assumes negative reaction to disagreement from others before it’s actually given
  • Fills in details of opposing arguments without having explicitly heard them
  • Is overly general or lacking specific articulate criticisms
  • Can be reduced to “my gut feeling doesn’t like this”
  • Paves over or ignores opposing viewpoint when convenient
  • Detracts from importance of the issue in disagreement rather than address the disagreement itself
  • Expects authority to effect a particular action regardless of discussion
  • Is delivered only because it is expected by superiors
  • Surrenders quickly due to discomfort associated with disagreeing
  • Plays devil’s advocate wantonly or without purpose

Effective disagreement:

  • Maintains an open mind and pliable opinion
  • Accepts that disagreements can be resolved via changing of opinion
  • Does not assume personal correctness of opinion
  • Does not shut down discussion before the group has agreed to stop
  • Is delivered after considering the merit of the opposing viewpoint relative to the facts and data at hand
  • Is delivered coolly with constant reference to established facts and data for each statement
  • Attempts to refine points of disagreement between parties first, then resolve disagreements second
  • Seeks to actually change opinion of disagreeing parties to reach a consensus that all parties will agree is the most effective path forward
  • Does not respond to emotionality or passionate arguments, preferring impartial consideration
  • Accepts disagreement as an essential and positive part of team functionality
  • Assumes good will and common goals of people with different opinion
  • Understands the personalities and thought processes of the people supporting the opposing opinion
  • Tenaciously argues for opinion, but accepts defeat when clearly outmaneuvered
  • Accepts that there is usually no moral content of disagreement in the professional context
  • Does not build grudges or allow tainting of discussion by grudges based off of disagreements
  • Is scientifically detached from both the issue and the individuals at hand
  • Is blind to status and applied equally
  • Is delivered respectfully, directly, without personal attacks or passive aggression
  • Is delivered in neutral language, in a neutral tone

There’s quite a bit to keep track of here, so I’ll summarize the biggest points of each quickly. Ineffective disagreement is emotional, argumentative, judgmental, fact-free, loud, and political. Effective/intelligent disagreement is data-driven, neutral toned, open minded, inquisitive, and status-blind. Of course, getting yourself and your team to disagree in an effective way is easier said than done, as many people have been disagreeing ineffectively for a lifetime. The colloquial pattern of disagreement is easy to fall into, but has no place in a work environment because it’s an expression of emotion rather than an attempt to navigate a path forward.

Delving into resolving disagreements, I highly suggest that you understand your own opinion on the disagreed-on issue completely. Write your opinion down, and think systematically! Most of the time, our opinions are not nearly as clarified or explicit as we would suspect. Very frequently, clashing opinions are a result of unclarified thoughts that lie in between premise and conclusion. The human brain has a fantastic ability to sketch an idea’s outskirts, then trick itself into believing that the interior is filled with detail without actually investigating each wrinkle. Upon examination of the area in between the edges, we find that our idea isn’t really as developed as we had initially hoped.

Referencing data and forcing a step by step compilation of an opinion’s logic is one of the strongest tools for evaluating ideas, and is an essential tool for smart disagreement. If an opinion is fully developed and linked to supporting data, it is easier to positively assert that the opinion is correct and also easier to refute clashes with other opinions. If an opinion is fully thought out and linked to data, it will usually be more persuasive than an emotional opinion and allow for a faster resolution of disagreement.

In the laboratory, the way to resolve certain disagreements of fact was to conduct experiments. The results of the experiment would clarify which opinion was correct, and instantly catalyze a consensus. Of course, there was always the chance that the data from an experiment would raise new disagreements and questions, but this too was a welcome consequence, and moved the discussion forward.

Conducting experiments to resolve disagreements may not always be possible in a work setting, but sometimes a thought experiment or hypothetical experiment can be helpful in clarifying opinions. If the path through a jammed disagreement isn’t being loosened by talking through the logical steps and evidence for each opinion, try an experiment. I’ve discussed how to conduct an experiment in a work setting in my previous post.

I find that being more in tune with emotions and personal state of mind helps to disagree more intelligently. As out there as it may sound, a lot of team disagreements over otherwise trivial issues are born from outside stressors. If a person is stressed out or otherwise emotionally run down, their disagreement style will trend toward the “ineffective disagreement” list. Defensiveness, emotionality, and reactivity are far more likely to crop up. In this sense, ineffective disagreement can be a symptom of other problems in the work environment.

The companion post to this will probably be discussing how to agree effectively in the workplace– easier said than done, I think! I may also revisit this post at a later time with special attention to office politics and personal fiefdoms, which I have found to be particularly poisonous for team cohesiveness and effective disagreement.

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