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How thoughtful disagreement can lead to significant breakthroughs

Stop seeing disagreements as a bad thing.

How thoughtful disagreement can lead to significant breakthroughs
[Photo: Jonatan Pie/Unsplash; Jian Fan/iStock]

My business partner, Caroline, and I don’t always agree. But this isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it is what we love about our relationship. The bulk of her experience comes from the creative world, while my background is in business. We each know that we can’t do what the other does well, so we give and take until we reach a resolution that aligns with our goals.

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Ray Dalio, the founder of hedge fund Bridgewater Associates, calls this thoughtful disagreement. The objective is not to win an argument by wooing the other party to your side, but to exchange ideas and determine which view is best for all parties.

When you work with people, you’re bound to disagree with them at some point. But you shouldn’t see this as a negative thing. When you disagree in good faith, it can be a powerful tool for unlocking feedback and uncovering additional data points for the decision-making process. With that in mind, here are four strategies for making the most of thoughtful disagreement:

1. Be productive about feedback

Remember, your goal isn’t to be right. It’s to make sure that everybody is aligned. That thought was absolutely top of mind when I think about Theranos, a one-time Silicon Valley darling that came undone after inaccuracies in its blood testing practices revealed a sweeping case of corporate fraud. Employees raised red flags over mischaracterized results, yet leadership responded by telling those people they were too ignorant to know what the data meant.

To engage in more productive disagreements, leaders must set expectations for conversations, their purposes, and their outcomes. Make it clear that they need to take steps with the big picture in mind. Instead of making a decision that will benefit one individual or department, weigh whether it will actually help the organization as a whole. As roadblocks emerge, be prepared to ask, “How can we overcome this?” and avoid giving feedback that only tells others that their ideas are wrong.

2. Be curious about different points of view

Everyone has an opinion. Perhaps it’s feedback on a new process or a different point of view on which new product features are most valuable. It’s easy to get defensive or frustrated when people disagree with you, but you can’t do that. Instead, you need to be curious. It’s your responsibility to see the whole picture when others are failing to do so.

For example, you might find yourself pulled in different directions when you’re deciding on a new feature or service line for your company or department. Those on the product development side are likely to be focused on execution and might turn down ideas that that are more difficult to execute. The customer service side, meanwhile, will be looking at the situation from a relationship standpoint. They’re thinking about the last five customers who yelled at them, not the bugs or the hours the development team spends fixing issues in a similar feature.

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As a leader, you must take an interest in what they all have to say. Look at the issues from different angles to find the solution that makes the most sense. Thoughtful disagreement is about being willing to embrace tension and explore possible results with a sense of curiosity.

3. Use data

My team has no shortage of great ideas. Sometimes it’s necessary to look beyond the initial excitement of those ideas and examine what the data is telling you. It can be a deflating experience when the data conflicts with the excitement of the concept, but that’s precisely why you need to run tests whenever possible to prevent problems down the road.

In one case at my company, my team had a great idea for increasing conversion rates. Unfortunately, when we tested that idea, the data showed us that not one single conversion was going to result from implementation. It wasn’t easy for everyone to accept that. But just because the data doesn’t pan out, that does not mean your idea is bad. It just means it’s not going work. Don’t make killing ideas the focus—the key is to be data-informed and let the numbers guide you toward better results.

4. Avoid making things personal

When disagreements veer into questioning someone’s qualifications, we stop being productive. Even worse, we create an unhealthy environment. It’s everyone’s responsibility to accept feedback if you want to get anything done.

When conversations seem to be at a stalemate (or interactions are sliding into playground territory), I refocus the team on the goal of our discussion and engage the team on that problem. This helps reveal misunderstandings, and when those occur, I take on the role of the translator over taking sides.

At every company, each person brings a different background and set of beliefs to the work he or she does. If you harness these differences correctly, you can unearth new approaches to solving problems that make the company stronger and more vibrant. You can’t get away from disagreements, but you can make them productive by seeking honest feedback, relying on data, and keeping conversations on track and professional. Choose not to look at disagreements as barriers. Instead, view them as a springboard to new ideas and innovative solutions.

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Christine Alemany is the CEO at TBGA. She has a passion for helping early-to midstage companies grow and scale. Christine has more than 19 years of experience reinvigorating brands, building demand generation programs, and launching products for startups and Fortune 500 companies.

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