Disagreement is good, if …
You’re an editor on a college media newsroom team whose members still are getting to know each other. An issue comes up in a meeting, and someone makes a suggestion that you think is off-base. (What exactly is “off-base?” More on that at the end of this post.)
1. Interrupt and say, “That’s the stupidest idea I ever heard,”
2. Say nothing. Why alienate someone you have to work with all year?
You probably didn’t have much trouble concluding those are both bad options. But it might surprise you to hear a management expert argue that Option 2 can be just as damaging to your organization as Option 1.
Let’s deal quickly with Option 1. In the rough and tumble of a newsroom, it’s easy to fall into the bad habit of making insulting, dismissive comments. Don’t. Insults chip away at the creativity that is so necessary to your team’s success. Yes, some people can thrive in that atmosphere, but more introverted people (who just might be great members of your team) will be driven away.
However, respecting other people’s feelings can be carried to the extreme of not airing important disagreements. That’s a key point in “The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business,” by Patrick Lencioni.
In his consulting work, Lencioni says, he saw management teams that never disagreed in meetings. But obviously people disagreed. So maybe they rolled their eyes — not a great team-building tactic.
Worse, important disagreements were not openly discussed. So important decisions were not made. People worked at cross-purposes for weeks, months or years because no one ever forced a decision on which path to take.
So it’s necessary to speak up and air the disagreement. And to do so respectfully. Lencioni advocates learning about and respecting the personality differences that show up in instruments like the famous Myers-Briggs quiz.
I can vouch for that. As a (fairly) young manager in a training group at The Associated Press headquarters in New York, I found the Myers-Briggs test and instruction in work styles the most illuminating portion of the week. It was a revelation to me that some people didn’t look at their professional lives just like I did!
I can identify with Lencioni, who writes:
As an Irish-Italian-American, I seem to have come out of the womb ready for passionate conflict, and I was certainly able to practice it regularly during childhood. However, some of the members of my team at work came from families that rarely shouted or demonstrated outward disapproval with one another. This creates a potential problem. To mitigate it, team members have to be open and vulnerable enough to explain their conflict tendencies to one another and then find common ground.
You can find simpler and cheaper (and even free) versions of Myers-Briggs tests online. And even if you don’t formally assess yourselves, it’s great if your team can discuss this question: “How do we want to disagree with each other?” If people don’t want to talk about it, try some role-playing (it’s always good to play an over-the-top terrible team member to break the ice).
And then when you think it’s important to disagree, do it.
Now, about what’s really “off-base” enough for you to act: Not everything you would do differently needs to be changed. So if you’re the entertainment editor, you probably don’t need to voice your opinion that the sports editor is choosing the wrong photo for her page. (Nothing will make people hate your news meetings more than allowing everyone to nitpick each other’s work.)
But maybe the discussion is about a sensitive ethical issue. Even though it’s not “your department,” if you are concerned that a core value might be compromised, you should speak up — respectfully. That would also go for any issue that you think jeopardizes the success of the operation.
And certainly don’t imitate the managers Lencioni observed. Don’t listen to discussion of a new initiative and think, “That’s dumb. I’m not going to do it.” Ask for a further discussion — perhaps when more time is available — so that everyone’s views can be heard.