Leadership: Encourage Disagreement

In Strategy by Marc

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If you’ve been out in the working world long enough, you have likely encountered the bull-headed boss. He or she may make the pretense of asking the team for their input on a product or project, yet your idea was shot down when you dared to voice a dissenting viewpoint. You realize the only way to protect your job was to be agreeable. You don’t have fond memories of your time working for that employer or in that job. In fact, you likely hightailed it out of there as soon as you could.

Now that you’re in a leadership position or the owner of a business, it’s vital that you remember what it was like working under a boss who didn’t challenge you to disagree. If you want to hold on to your best, smartest, most innovative employees, it’s essential that you create a safe place for dissent.

Agree to Disagreement

Many companies reject the traditional workplace hierarchy and including all employees in strategic conversations. For example, think of all the open office plans that are replacing the antiquated cubicle farms. This is not the result of the boss not trusting that employees are working. It’s about encouraging collaboration at every level and in every department.

Companies with a flat hierarchy in the conference room allow a multitude of perspectives. Instead of the boss talking at the employees, everyone can voice their opinions. Disagreement is encouraged, not squashed. Even bad ideas are acknowledged in service to the discussion.

Mark Peter Davis, writing for Inc.com, says, “As CEO, you’re responsible for leveling the playing field between stakeholders to ensure that they debate, and for acting as referee. This means not only helping the team navigate each individual decision, but also facilitating conversations about how the team members talk to each other.”

Your job is to encourage dissent.  But do not allow the discussion to dissolve into a polarizing cable news-type argument where people are talking over each other. It’s essential that everyone treat each other’s ideas with respect, even if they disagree.

Good Leadership Means Leaving Your Ego at the Door

The boss who surrounds him or herself with yes men is either secretly insecure about his or her ideas, or is egotistical enough to believe that the leader is always right.

First of all, no human being is right on every point, every time. Second, it’s not just about being right. It’s about gathering differences of opinion to create a comprehensive plan that includes the best ideas from marketing, sales, tech, etc. You likely have great ideas of your own, but you hired your employees because you value their input. Show it by encouraging them to disagree with you and each other and to explain their position. Don’t see their dissent as criticism—see it as progress; progress towards the best plan possible, one that takes into account all the angles of the business.

Business leadership coach Bernd Geropp explains, “Good disagreement is central to progress. If you don’t allow dissent, you produce a company culture of stagnation, fear and frustration.”

The benefits of allowing your employees to disagree with you are well worth any blows to your ego. You are giving them a gift of making a contribution to the greater good of the enterprise. You are fostering a work environment where your people will feel invested in the company’s success.

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