How to be a Good Adviser by Playing Pretend

Upon leaving a job about a year ago, at my going away party one of my friends and coworkers asked me if I had any advice to pass on to the team. At the time, I stated that my advice was not to give generalized advice without a specific issue in mind, because it wouldn’t contain actionable information that would improve the receiver’s experience. With the benefit of time, I can see that there are a few more wrinkles to discuss regarding advising.

Most of my early experience with advising was from my school and university years. Later, I’d go on to advise my friends on their business ventures by asking questions then following up with more questions. I’ll disclose a caveat to my thinking on advising: I’ve never been so keen on asking for advice because of all the bad advice I’ve received over the years. My negative advising experiences have given me a lot of ideas to chew on, though.

There is a distinction between offering a piece of advice, and being an actual adviser, and for this piece I’ll touch on both, with an emphasis on the latter.  I’d like to revisit that sentiment and delve a little bit deeper. Before I do, a brief discussion of what advice is and what advisers are is in order.

Generally speaking, people are familiar with the concept of taking advice from others regarding areas outside their expertise. Additionally, people are usually comfortable with the idea of providing advice to others when prompted– and, frequently to the frustration of others, when they are not prompted. Advice is the transfer of topical information or data by a third party to a person looking for a good outcome. A large volume of our communications are offering, requesting, or clarifying advice.

The concept of advice as information will be familiar to almost everyone. Frequently, the topical information that is elicited by a request for advice is anecdotal. If the adviser is careless or not directed, the anecdotal information offered to the advised may merely be tangentially related or actually unrelated to the issue at hand. Not everyone pays close attention to their outgoing advice if they have no skin in the game. The main problem with anecdotal evidence is that it refers to specific instances of a trend rather than the rules which govern that trend. Yet, most advice is anecdotal, perhaps as an artifact of humanity’s sensitivity to personal stories rather than hard data or universal laws.

Informally, it’s nearly impossible to escape anecdotal evidence when requesting or giving advice. Frequently, an adviser will forgo telling the actual anecdote, and skip right to the advice that they have distilled from their own experience, leaving the advised with an even more incomplete view. This has predictable consequences when paired with people’s tendency to do as others tell them. Using an incomplete group of anecdotes culled from the experience of others and processed from an uncomfortable position of ignorance, decisions are made based on the emotions of others rather than clear-headed analysis.

I am sure nearly everyone has received completely heartfelt yet completely detrimental advice in their time. If we are lucky, we avoid the consequences of receiving bad advice and catch the mistakes of our advisers in time to reject their thoughts and prevent internalization. If we are unlucky, we follow the path to nowhere and are upset with the results.

Part of maturity is understanding that while others are capable of delivering bad advice, we too are likely to give bad advice if given the chance. We don’t have to commit to delivering advice if we don’t feel qualified, nor do we have to ask for advice or follow advice once given. Advice is just a perspective on an issue, and not all perspectives are equal.

Critically, good advice is specific and actionable rather than vague. If the best that an adviser can do is offer a general direction to follow up on, you’re outside the realm of their experience or outside the amount of effort they’re willing to invest in you. A typical red flag for bad advice is that it’s delivered quickly, sleepily, or nearly automatically.

Good advising is extremely effort intensive! Rid yourself of advisers that don’t respect you enough to apply themselves fully. In my experience, the prototypical awful adviser is coerced into the role rather than choosing it themselves. University advisers are the worst example of being forced into advising. Identify which advisers are around only because they’re required to be, and then avoid them and their bad advice.

So, how are we going to limit our ability to deliver bad advice and maximize our delivery of good advice? Should we simply stonewall all requests for advice and refuse to ask others for help? I don’t think that this is the answer, because advice is one of the principle ways in which we can share the experiences of others and make use of experiences that we have not had ourselves. Sharing experiences is a critical component to being human, and it’s unlikely that we could stop even if we tried.

The way that I propose to avoid delivering bad advice and to actually deliver good advice is to use a mind-trick on ourselves. The mind-trick that I am referring to is playing pretend. First, I’ll need to build a mental image of the thing I want to pretend to be– the best possible adviser– then when it’s time to give advice, I’ll be able to pretend to be the embodiment of the image and put myself in the correct mindset for delivering good advice. After I’ve built the barebones of this mental image, taking it out for a test run with a hypothetical request for advice will help to fill in the details and also provide a template for how to think when it’s time to deliver real advice.

What are the properties of this mental image of the ideal adviser? I think that the perfect adviser is a professorial figure, and so adopting an academic tone and patient, receptive train of thought is necessary. Advising someone else shouldn’t be careless or haphazard, so the perfect adviser should mentally state an intention to provide their undivided and complete attention to the pupil for the duration of the session. The aim is to achieve a meditative focus on the present where the power of the adviser’s knowledge and experience can act without interference. The adviser is never emotional. Value judgments are deferred or unstated; the details and the pupil are at the forefront.

In order to advise properly, this professorial type will know the limits of his knowledge as well as his strong points, and will weight his statements to the pupil in accordance with how much he really knows, making sure to be precise with his language and to qualify his statements. Reaching the limits of the adviser’s knowledge isn’t something to be ashamed of, as it’s an interesting challenge for the ideal adviser to chew on.

The aim of the perfect adviser is to consider the particular details of the situation of his pupil, relate them to the universal trends which the adviser has uncovered with conscious effort, and then use a combination of the universal trends and the particulars of the pupil to offer a prescription for action. The mental image of the adviser will explicitly recite the universal trends to himself as he ponders the direction to indicate to his pupil. The conversation between the pupil and the adviser is marked by long pauses as the adviser takes the time to call critical trends and details into his working memory so that the pupil may make use of them. Advising is a conversation that can’t be rushed, because the adviser might forget to make an important connection of communicate in a precise way. The best advising has no time limit.

With each stanza of conversation, the adviser will find that his idea of the prescription in progress is stalled by a facet of the pupil’s situation which hasn’t been discussed. The adviser asks deeply focused questions which will unblock the progress of making his advice draft. The draft will have to be completely reworked in light of information gathered from the pupil. Once the draft is completed, the adviser will ask validating questions to see whether their draft is workable and realistic. Upon validation, the adviser will deliver the draft in a reassuring yet detached fashion.

I actually use this mental image when I’m called on to give advice, and I think it helps a lot. “Playing pretend” is just a convenient way of stepping into a foreign mindset without getting too self conscious. The important takeaway here is that the mindset of being a good adviser is very different from our normal range of thought because it is both clinical and creative. Clinical in the sense that facts and particulars are recognizable within a general framework, and creative in the sense that the solution to the clinically described problem probably doesn’t have a pre-established treatment.

Advising is a skill that can be learned and perfected, though it’s seldom prioritized. I think that prioritizing becoming a good adviser is absolutely essential if you think that giving advice is a core part of what you do. For the most part, “first do no harm” is a maxim that I wish more advisers practiced. If you liked this article, follow me on Twitter @cryoshon and check out my Patreon page! I’ll probably revisit this article when I have a bit more experience advising.

 

 

How to Become a Smarty Pants

There’s been a small amount of interest that I’ve seen in a few communities regarding building status as an “intellectual” in the colloquial sense, and I think it’s probably more correct to say that people would rather be perceived as smart than as dumb, which is completely fair.

This article could also be called “How to Look and Sound Like an Intellectual” although frankly that implies a scope that is much larger than anything I could discuss. So, we have a lighthearted article which purports to transform regular schlubs into smarty pants, if not genuinely smart people. If you already fashion yourself as a smarty pants, read on– I know you’re already into the idea of growing your capacities further. Hopefully my prescription won’t be too harsh for any given person to follow if they desire.

While it seems a bit backward to me to desire a socially assigned label rather than the concrete skills which cause people to give that label to others, building a curriculum  for being a smarty pants seems like an interesting challenge to me, so I’ll give it a shot. I hope that this will be a practice guide on how to not only seem smarter, but actually to think smarter and maybe even behave smarter. The general idea I’m going to hammer out here is that becoming an intellectual is merely a constant habit of stashing knowledge and cognitive tools. The contents of the stash are subject to compound interest as bridges between concepts are built and strengthened over time.

In many ways, I think that being a smarty pants is related with being a well rounded person in general. The primary difference between being seen as an intellectual and seen as a well rounded person is one of expertise. The expertise of an intellectual is building “intellect”, which is an amorphously defined faculty which lends itself to making witty rejoinders and authoritative-sounding commentary. There’s more to being a smarty pants than puns and convincing rhetoric, though: smarty pants everywhere have been utilizing obscure namedropping since the dawn of society. Playtime is over now, though. How the heck does a person become a smarty pants instead of merely pretending to be like one?

Being a smarty pants is a habit of prioritizing acquisition of deep knowledge over superficial knowledge. Were you taught the theory of evolution in school? Recall the image that is most commonly associated with evolution. You probably picked the monkey gradually becoming a walking man, which is wrong. The superficial knowledge of the idea that humans and monkeys had a common ancestor is extremely common, but the deeper knowledge is that taxonomically, evolution behaves like a branched tree rather than a series of points along a line.

See how I just scored some smarty pants points by taking a superficial idea and clarifying it with detailed evidence which is more accurate? That’s a core smarty pants technique, and it’s only possible if you have deep knowledge in the first place. Another smarty pants technique is anticipating misconceptions before they occur, and clearing them up preemptively. How should you acquire deep knowledge, though?

Stop watching “the news”, TV, movies, cat videos, and “shows”. Harsh, I know– but this step is completely necessary until a person has rooted themselves in being a smarty pants. This media is intended to prime you for certain behaviors and thoughts, occupy your time outside of work, and provide a sensation of entertainment rather than enriching your mind. The more you consume these media, the less your mind is your own, and the more your mind is merely a collection of tropes placed there by someone else. Choosing to be a smarty pants is the same as choosing isolation from the noise of the irrelevant.

For the most part, these media are sources of superficial information and never deep information. You can’t be a smarty pants if you’re only loaded with Big Bang Theory quotes, because being a smarty pants means knowing things that other people don’t know and synthesizing concepts together in ways that other people wouldn’t or couldn’t. There is zero mental effort involved in consuming the vast majority of these media, even the purported “educational” shows and documentaries which are largely vapid. Seeing a documentary is only the barest introduction to a topic. Intellectuals read, then think, then repeat.

I guess I’ve said some pretty radical things here, but try going back and viewing some media in the light I’ve cast it in. There are exceptions to the rule here, of course: The Wire, The Deer Hunter, American Beauty, or an exceptionally crafted documentary. The idea is that these deeper works are mentally participatory rather than passively consumed; the depth and emotionality that the best audiovisual media convey can be considered fine art, and smarty pants love fine art. During your smarty pants training, I would still avoid all of the above, though. Speaking of your smart pants training…

Stop reading “the news”, gossip of any kind, Facebook, Twitter, clickbait articles, and magazines.  These things are all motherlodes of superficial information. As Murakami said truthfully, “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” This concept is absolutely critical because an intellectual is defined by depth of thought, quality of thought, and originality of thought relative to the normal expectation. Loading up on intellectual junk food is useless for this purpose, so get rid of it and you will instantly get smarter.

Noticed how I namedropped Murakami there? That’s worth smarty pants points because it’s conceptual tie in that is directly relevant to the point I’m trying to make, and expresses the idea more elegantly than I could on my own. Don’t just namedrop obscure people wildly, as you’ll look more like a jackass than a smarty pants, though the line is blurry at times. Being a fresh-faced smarty pants frequently involves making the people around you feel inadequate, but it shouldn’t when practiced properly!

The purpose of self-enrichment is for self-benefit, and should not be used for putting down others. Frequently, knowledge may be controversial or unwelcome, so begin to be sensitive to that when conversing with others. Life isn’t a contest for who can show off the most factual knowledge– but if it were, a good smarty pants would be in the running for the winner, and that’s your new goal.

Pick an area that will be your expertise. Pick something you will find interesting and can learn about without laboring against your attention capacity. This should be distinct from a hobby. Which topic you address is up to you, but I’d highly suggest approaching whatever topic you choose in a multi-disciplinary manner. If you’re interested in psychology, be sure to devour some sociology. If you’re interested in biology, grab some chemistry and physics. If you’re a philosopher, try literature or history. Your expertise in your chosen field will mature over time, and eventually you should branch out to gain expertise in a new field.

The idea here is that the process of picking an area of expertise is useful to the smarty pants. By evaluating different areas, the smarty pants will get a feel for what they’re interested in, what’s current, and what’s boring. The most intellectually fruitful areas of expertise have a lot of cross-applicability to other areas and concepts, an established corpus of literature, and a lot of superficial everyday-life correlates. Suitable examples of areas of expertise are “the history of science” or “modern political thought”. An unsuitable example of an area of expertise would be “dogs” or “engine design”. Unsuitable areas of expertise aren’t applicable to outside concepts and don’t confer new paradigms of thought.

Start reading books, in-depth articles, and scholarly summaries on topics which you want to develop your expertise in. A smarty pants has a hungry mind and needs a constant supply of brain food, which is synonymous with deep knowledge. Reading books and developing deep knowledge is never finished for the aspiring smarty pants. Plow through book after book; ensure that the most referenced scholarly works or industrial texts are well-understood. Understand who the major thinkers and groups are within the area of expertise, and be able to explain their thoughts and relationships. Quality is the priority over quantity of information, however.

Merely stopping the flow of bad information in and starting a flow of good information isn’t enough to be a real smarty pants, though it’s a good start. In order to really change ourselves into smarty pants, we must change our way of engagement with the world. As referenced before regarding media consumption, a smarty pants must interrogate the world with an active mind rather than a passive mind. What do I mean here?

A passive mind watches the world and receives its thoughts as passed from on high. Passive minds do not chew on incoming information before internalizing it– we recognize this the most pungently when a relative makes regrettable political statements culled directly from Fox News. An active mind is constantly questioning validity, making comparisons to previous concepts, and rejecting faulty logic. An active mind references the current topic with its corpus of knowledge, finding inconsistencies.

Creating an active mind is an extremely large task that I’ll probably break into in another full article, but suffice it to say that the smarty pants must get into the habit of chewing on incoming information and assessing its value before swallowing. Learning how to think/write systematically and disagree intelligently are probably both skills that a smarty pants can make use of.

Speaking of relatives, a smarty pants needs to have good company in order to grow. Ditch your dumb old friends and get some folks who are definitely smarter than you– they exist, no matter what you may think of yourself. You don’t really need to ditch your old friends, but you really do need to get the brain juices flowing by social contact with other smarty pants. There are many groups on the internet which purport to be the home of  smart people, but my personal choice is HackerNews.

It’ll hurt to feel dumb all the time, but remember that feeling dumb means that you are being exposed to difficult new concepts or information. Feeling dumb is the ideal situation f0r an aspiring smarty pants because feeling dumb means that you are feeling pressure that will promote growing to meet the demands of your environment. Every time you feel dumb, catch the feeling, resolve the feeling to an explicit insecurity, then gather and process information until that insecurity is squashed by understanding. Like I said before, this step is unpleasant, but nobody said being a smarty pants was easy.

This concludes my primer on how to be a smarty pants. I’ll be writing more on this topic, though a bit more seriously and more specifically. I’d really like to publish a general “how to think critically” article in the near future, and of course critical thinking is a core smarty pants skill. I have a reading list for the most general and abstract “smarty pants education” that I’ll be publishing relatively soon as well. Until then, try practicing the bold points here.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter @cryoshon and check out my Patreon page!

How to Understand and Provide Praise and Criticism at Work

The issues of praise and criticism in the workplace are especially important for employee morale– after all, it feels bad to be criticized and feels good to be praised. The effects of praise and criticism are cumulative, so each must be given carefully and in a targeted, effective fashion. Praising irrelevant or inconsequential attributes of a coworker’s work won’t be as effective as choosing the correct target. By the same token, we all know that feelings of indignation and hurt occur when we feel that we have been criticized unjustly. Of course, we may not be so happy when we receive accurate criticism either. This article is my attempt at biting into the concepts of workplace criticism and praise, attempting to tease out the actual psychological phenomena, and offering a constructive path forward that will provide superior quality communication.

First, let’s define criticism and praise. Criticism and praise are after-the-fact identification of priorities, effort invested, and outcome accomplished relative to prior expectations. Praise is an observation that the ordering of priorities, effort invested, and outcome accomplished were more successful than expectations beforehand. Criticism is identification that priorities were not what was expected, and as a result the effort invested may have been insufficient or misplaced, leading to an unexpected outcome that fell short. Neutral observations that are neither exactly criticism nor praise are likely to be identifications of unexpected priority placement or effort investment which did not have an explicitly positive or negative outcome.

By this definition, the two concepts of criticism and praise are in fact the same concept popularly called “feedback” in the corporate doublespeak. I don’t like the term feedback because it’s nonspecific and is frequently a euphemism for criticism because people are afraid of the word itself due to its emotionally harmful connotations. The fact that the word “criticism” has become verboten is an indictment on the disastrous state of communications skills in corporate life. Discussions of workplace priorities should not spur anxiety within employees, yet it is so. The knowledge of employee discomfort over receiving criticism has spurred the creation of many different investigations into various aspects of criticism, but many employees still struggle.

We should not fear criticism at work– criticism is merely a type of social signalling which indicates that our work priorities were inconsistent with what was expected by others. Adopt a detached mindset, and accept that if we never received praise or criticism because our priorities were always exactly in tune with everyone else, we would be closer to ants than humans.  We should not fear praise, either!

An inability to accept praise or a rejection of praise at work is merely a fear of admission that individual priorities were not the same as what was expected. A fear of criticism is frequently mirrored by a fear of praise because both pertain to individual deviation from expectation and thus a violation of social conformity. It is human nature to be conformist, so we can forgive an inbred tendency to avoid ostracization from the group, but we must overcome this tendency if we want to be part of a maximally effective team or organization.

Effective teams and organizations have a shared frame of priorities, which means that identifying deviations from those priorities is important for keeping on the right track. In this sense, we actually need a certain minimum amount conformity in order to accomplish our group’s goals. With that being said, I am of the opinion that too much conformity is typically far more harmful than too little— a team that is incapable of deviating from expectation is stagnant and inflexible.

So, how do we deliver criticism and praise in such a way that the people we deliver it to get the most helpful impact? The biggest unstated misconception that I regularly come across is that criticism and praise can be doled out without reference to the receiving person. I would like to rectify this misconception, perhaps controversially: the most effective criticism or praise will be carefully calibrated based off of what the receiving person prioritized when performing the work. 

Let’s unpack that statement. In order to get the biggest psychological impact in the desired direction (more efficacy and team cohesion), we have to understand and empathize with our coworker. We have to get into their head.

Why do you think they prioritized what they prioritized, and does this explain the outcome? What aspect of their work did they seem to have put the most effort into, and what part do they seem proud of? Do they seem anxious, ashamed or avoidant of certain prioritizations or aspects of their work? Why would they feel this way? It helps to have the coworker reiterate exactly what they think the expectations were for a given project.

Identifying insecurities regarding the work in question is a good starting point if the above questions are inscrutable. Frequently during discussions of their work, people will provide clues which indicate that they suspect their actual prioritizations are different from the expected prioritizations that may have been agreed upon at the start of a project. Suspicion of differing priorities does not mean that the person should be criticized! Frequently, refutations of expectation are positive, and are indicative of individual initiative and creativity. Individual initiative and creativity have their time and place, however; certain projects may be too sensitive or intolerant of deviation for an individual’s flair to have a positive impact.

Once you’ve identified points where a coworker’s prioritization or effort invested deviated from the original vision of the team, you have identified a point for criticism or praise. Examine the outcome compassionately: did the coworker’s choice seem as though it would be fruitful at the time? If there was really no need or leeway to reprioritize, and the outcome was worse than what was expected, they have earned criticism because it was the incorrect time for their creativity. Was the unexpected investment of effort fruitful in a surprising way while still accomplishing the original desired outcome? Time for praise.

The trick is to keep your criticism and praise limited, detached, and extremely topical. Find the points of individual initiative that the coworker took while working. If your coworker prioritized the wrong thing which led to a bad outcome, detail the logical chain for them if they aren’t aware that there was a problem. Did recalculating the sales from November waste valuable time that could have been spent compiling those sales into charts? Say so clearly and gently, giving your coworker acknowledgement for creativity but not shying away from the problem: “Though you are right that it’s essential for our data to be correct, prioritizing recalculating the sales from November instead of compiling those sales into charts led to a duplication of previous work which contributed toward us missing our deadline.”

Praise should follow the same formula, provided that the outcome was acceptable.  “Choosing to prioritize recalculation of the sales data over compiling the data into charts allowed us to catch a number of mistakes that we would not have otherwise.” Keep both praise and criticism impersonal! The objective of evaluating your coworker’s work is not to quantify their worth as a human being or “human resource” but rather to identify where their individual decisions were compatible with the objective of the team. Accept their choices as compartmentalized pieces on a per-project basis, then look for trends later on if you’re inclined.

Tone and body language are critical to giving and receiving praise and criticism, too. Because of how uncomfortable people are discussing deviations from expected priorities,  defensive body posture and clinical prescriptive tone occur very frequently on both sides of the table when evaluation time comes around. Making a conscious effort to avoid these harbingers of poor communication is absolutely essential! People will detect defensive or vulnerable body language and tone and mirror it when they piece together that criticism is inbound.

Instead, opt for open body language. Signalling warmth and having a benign disposition helps to prevent the other person from clamming up into a defensive posture and allows for praise and criticism to be fully analyzed without emotion. Tone of voice is a bit harder to remember to regulate, but should be carefully considered as well.

Praise should be delivered with a positive and serious tone– adopting a nurturing or parental voice is the most common mistake here. Workplace praise is not the same type of communication as praising your dog for returning its toy or your child for a good report card; workplace praise is clear-sighted objective recognition of successful individual task reprioritization. Praise for a good outcome is not personal, and shouldn’t be confounded by a friendly office relationship.

Criticism should also be delivered with a (slightly less) positive and serious tone. Remember, the purpose here is not to tear the other person down, or talk down to them, but rather to show them that their priorities caused outcomes that were not consistent with the team’s original purpose. Criticism should be delivered at normal speaking volume, and abstracted far away from any frustration you may feel.

A frustrated tone from you will cause the other person to grow defensive, and the maximum positive impact of criticism will not be achieved. A tone of simpering or crestfallen disappointment when delivering criticism will not do: personal emotions or discomfort are not relevant to the discussion of expected priorities and outcomes. Emphasize hope for the future, and move the discussion toward steps for next time around.

I hope you guys enjoyed this piece; I know that I struggle quite a bit with giving and accepting praise, so this article was enlightening for me to think through. Follow me on Twitter @cryoshon and be sure to check out my Patreon page if you like the stuff I’m writing!

 

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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