A popular comic strip once showed a soldier diligently watering a lawn in the rain. When a puzzled passer-by questions the need for a hose during a rain the solder answers he was simply following orders that the lawn must be watered every day. And then mischievously adds that soldiers are forbidden from disagreeing or questioning the orders made by their superiors. Conventional wisdom usually shows that going quietly with the established flow is the path to success and happiness. For example, if you are the boss and you have team members who don’t support you in everything, you may argue that it can undermine morale, reduce your authority, weaken the team, project or even sabotage the company goals. So, a good team player is one who does not rock the boat, delay decisions or introduce roadblocks. And obviously having people who agree with you on anything and everything has many perceived advantages like below.
1. Working with cooperative people is a joy and necessary to achieve a goal. After all who would like to work with people who disagree?
2. Things get done faster when you have people who agree with you on anything and everything.
3. With people who collaborate easily, there will be fewer conflicts, stress, and irritation.
And so on. The above reasons appear valid because people see disagreements in the workplace lead to anger, confusion, fear, embarrassment, etc., and so it must be avoided at all costs. However, putting the popular reasons aside for some time there are several hidden reasons why surrounding yourself with yes-men, apple-polishers, and people who blindly agree without questioning for various reasons (including fear) can actually be a poison pill for you. While preventing disagreements may have its valid reasons in the armed forces, the same formula in the civilian and corporate world can often become a disaster as you will soon see. To be truly successful you must periodically welcome a generous dose of disagreement in every major or important decision you take, even if you are an expert in what you do. The suggestion for openly inviting disagreement may seem odd because it can be infuriating, insulting, irritating and seen as a roadblock to your plans. But beneath the hood, there are several advantages of accepting people who can question your plans, decisions, demands, ideas, etc., provided you learn the ability to see it in an objective way. Many times the advantages of seeking advice from people who have the courage to disagree can often far outweigh the advantages of surrounding yourself with only who agree. The reasons why you need some disagreement are as follows.
1. Lack of dissent and disagreement means lack of analysis. Everything has a downside when viewed from certain angles. This has been aptly demonstrated by Alfred Sloan (CEO of General Motors from 1923 to 1956) who once said in a directors' meeting, ‘Gentlemen, I take it that we are all in complete agreement on the decision here. Then, I propose that we postpone further discussion to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.’ If Alfred Sloan couldn’t find opposition to an important decision, he would postpone it to give his business managers some time to think about the pros and cons in different ways.
2. A disagreement can often prevent you from rushing into bad decisions and choices. They give you time and press the brakes to ponder over it though you may get irritated by the delay and roadblocks. It is quite possible you may have done extensive homework on a decision, but still may have overlooked a simple, but important point, which the dissenting person can see when looked from a different angle.
3. Use disagreements to your advantage. Cynics, pessimists, and people who can disagree are right nine times out of ten. Hence, learn how to extract gold from it. When you are doing a project or a major task you need people who can blurt out problems and roadblocks openly, not someone who will gleefully say everything can be done and pat your back. Every time a cynic opens his mouth you know what exactly needs to be fixed so that a project can succeed. Ask yourself, ‘How can I use this information?’ or ‘How much time, money and effort is involved to solve all these problems?’
4. You need to accept opposition objectively and professionally. You should encourage people to disagree with you so that all sides of the decision can be carefully examined. Unless you are a megalomaniac, or an extremely dismissive person, you must accept the fact that countless people below or above you will be more talented, smarter, knowledgeable and more powerful than you. It’s not enough to invite dissent and criticism because it’s the new management fad or just for the heck of it, and later victimize or target the person for saying something you didn't like to hear.
5. Don’t be afraid to disagree or accept disagreement. Real leaders accept disagreement. Surrounding yourself with yes men simply means they are just rubber stamping everything you say without adding any value or digging deep into the issue. A certain amount of honest friction heightens interest and establishes mutual respect. However, when dealing with subordinates you have to invite dissent by asking beautiful questions. People beneath you will never openly dissent if you have blown your fuse or acted irrational earlier. Many employees, especially newcomers, will not speak up in an atmosphere where they feel their ideas are not welcome.
6. If you are famous or popular, everyone around will always agree with you and applaud all your decisions. If you notice such a thing, then you need to be extra careful of those who are too supportive of your ideas and suggestions. This is because they will also not prevent you from making mega mistakes. So, whether it’s your decision of buying an unsuitable equipment for your organization, or even going to the extent of cooking the books to commit some fraud they will not oppose or openly dissent. Later on, when something goes wrong badly the yes men around will quickly disappear and not share the blame by promptly claiming that it was all your decision. Of course, if they had disagreed earlier but you did not care or bulldozed their opinions then only you are to be solely blamed.
7. Another the key to managing disagreements is to prevent it from taking a personal turn as 99% of disagreements turn into conflicts and become dirty. The simple reason for this is the way a disagreement is put forth. Many a time, a particular suggestion or idea may invoke a swift and brutal objection due to various reasons, bad past experiences or the way it’s proposed. Disagreement has to be strongly focused on the issue or idea, and not on the person or the way the person blurted out the opinion, or body language, bad choice of words, etc. Though etiquette counts, the emotional aspect must be carefully and consciously filtered out so that you can to refocus on the issue or in extreme cases abandon the idea completely.
8. One must also understand that disagreement and dissent should not be done just for the sake of it like opposition politicians who have a standard policy to oppose everything that the ruling party does. Arguing just for the sake of arguing is also not productive disagreement.
Finally, we can conclude this chapter with two great quotes on agreeing.
‘The fellow that agrees with everything you say is either a fool or he is getting ready to skin you.’ Kin Hubbard
‘The people to fear are not those who disagree with you, but those who disagree with you and are too cowardly to let you know.’ Napoleon Bonaparte.