Disagreement: the Most Unrecognized Virtue of Teamwork

Expanding on an important principle in my book Kingdom Culture

“No team or relationship can thrive without engaging the art of disagreement!”

 

Married couples, leadership teams, or project teams, may want to read and discuss this article together. It contains a key to unity, success, and maximizing productivity in our missions.

 

I was having coffee with Rocky, a leader that I run into once in a while. Rocky is not afraid to be honest, isn’t chained by people-pleasing, and may often tell you quite naturally if he disagrees with something you say. What makes it difficult is that Rocky, and some other people like Rocky, can brilliantly spot things that are out of alignment. But he can also affirm things that are correctly aligned. Rocky clearly sees many things others don’t in his particular areas of competence. This often creates a problem for Rocky in settings where people are insecure or fragile and are intimidated by being challenged. I will admit, though, that Rocky has burnt some bridges by failing to disagree with the grace of a crane landing on the lake shore. More than once Rocky has been shunned because he only says yes when he means yes. Rocky is a phenomenal high-level leader with a few spikes, some of which are being smoothed in order to allow Rocky more finesse with his organic wisdom.

 

There are two other problems Rocky faces, which are not his fault. One, he is trying to survive in a culture that fails to recognize the value and the need for the virtue of disagreement. Two, he is trying to relate to a culture filled with insecure people who can’t rise above Rocky’s straightforward nature and receive the amazing insight he offers.

 

A Necessary Adjective to Accompany Disagreement

Before I go further, I’ll add a necessary adjective in front of disagreement—HEALTHY! Contentious, immature, unwise disagreement is not a virtue. Disagreeing with people is an art, a skill, and demands strong character in the one disagreeing. Unhealthy disagreement can be divisive, abusive, unkind, unproductive. Healthy disagreement can be bonding, encouraging, loving, and productive. Some people associate all disagreement to arguing, and that is untrue.

 

I live in a region where passivity in the way people live and lead is quite common—overwhelmingly common. In my workshops and conferences I have addressed passivity in many ways. I often contrast peacekeeping with peacemaking. Passive personalities are peacekeepers. I say peacekeeping is a poison, but peacemaking is a virtue. Peacekeeping values consensus above truth, agreement above what is right, short term peace over long term healthy relating. Peacemaking, what Jesus taught, values the opposite—truth, doing what is holy and just, and paying a price to have long-term, steadfast solutions—real peace. In a peacekeeping environment, disagreeing is threatening and discourteous. Disagreeing is viewed as a negative vibe.

 

So for the rest of this teaching, assume my reference to disagreement means the healthy kind.

 

Sadly, in most teams, from a marriage to a community-development team, desired goals will rarely be secured without the virtue of disagreement being active on the team.

 

Why Is Disagreement So Important?

I could bore you with countless stories about disagreements Ruthie and I had—when she won. Now, when I say that Ruthie and I disagreed, you may think, Ruthie and Bruce had a contentious argument. Nope! Our marriage is a safe place to disagree, though we might debate our point of view. In fact, laying out our different points of view is what has enabled us to thrive in our marriage after four decades. We require disagreeing when we disagree (if that makes sense—insert smiley face!) What I mean is, in our marriage the rule is, if we disagree, speak it out. Don’t hear me say that we never argue, it’s just not the norm.

 

When I mentioned above that she won some disagreements, I was referring to times that I died to my own opinion in favor of hers and the outcome was better than mine would have been. More than once, after I agreed to do what she thought was right instead of her doing what I thought was right, I said two things to her, Thank God I have a wife that pushes through for truth, and thank God He gave me the grace to listen to you! But that same dynamic works the other way too, when Ruthie chooses to agree to my way.

 

At the Coffee Shop

Recently Ruthie and I went to a coffee shop to plan our agenda for the next season. There were those sitting at nearby tables who might have thought Ruthie and I were having a fight, except we’d pause, smile, hold hands, and get more coffee. We were wrestling because Ruthie was “done” with my lists that got me nowhere. She disagreed in a major way with what I thought was positive forward motion. It was tense, it was passionate, but it was loving. We’d pause every now and then because something not-so-threatening would come up, and we’d chat a bit…but then back to the challenge.

 

That day Ruthie and I came to a much better understanding of our future, and she injected some things into me that I had to change, which wouldn’t have happened if she was afraid to disagree with me.

 

I could also tell you of many times a lone voice on my leadership team injected an opinion which was light years away from what all the others were thinking—-and that lone voice positively altered the outcome on the issue by their courageous honesty, benefitting everyone.

 

I’m don’t think any team will ever maximize their potential outside a culture that values disagreement. For example…

 

Oops! We Drilled in the Wrong Place

Earlier in my life I was a writer for a business magazine. My job was to interview executives in large and successful corporations who were primarily responsible for the operations of the business. I learned some great things from epic organizations. One that stands out was my interview with the vice-president of a petroleum company reporting a profit of around 350 million dollars annually. Here’s a reconstruction of a section of my interview:

 

Me: Sir, what are some of the main dynamics that make your company successful?

VP: Bruce, there are several operational protocols we follow to secure success, but it begins with my team. Everything revolves around the strength of those that are responsible for making decisions. I’ll tell you how it works: I know that no organization can maximize their productivity without a strong team, and so I nurture healthy team dynamics.

Me: Okay, like what?

VP: Disagreement!

Me: Disagreement? Tell me more!

VP: In my business we drill wells. The problem is that if we drill a well in the wrong place we could lose millions of dollars overnight. It is imperative that my team, that I chair, investigates every possibility before coming to a conclusion. The way we do this is by creating a team culture that provides a safe place to disagree. In fact, if somebody is insecure, lacks confidence, or is afraid to oppose consensus, he or she is removed from the team. We can’t afford to have someone on the team who is shy to challenge ideas and strategies. In fact, it is often the solitary opinion that opposes the consensus of the others that ends up supplying the key, or influencing the others enough to put the right slant on our decision.

Me: So, what if you have total consensus on an important decision?

VP: Ha! Great question! Then I will be the devil’s advocate and challenge the thought processes until I am sure that we hit the target.

Me: That’s incredible. I love it, but how do you ever nurture a team that can effectively operate that way. I know from my experience that what you’ve mastered is where other teams fail.

VP: I break some rules, Bruce. I do what few leaders do, and actually what status quo says a leader should NOT do. I get to know my team personally. I can’t work with them on such delicate matters in a business that has so much fragility if I don’t know each one of them personally. So, they know my office is always open to them. I have team people sitting in my office pouring out their hearts on marriage issues, children, or other struggles. We are not just a professional team—we are a relational team, and that makes our team safe to disagree without emotional reprisal.

 

What a Model!

That interview graced my mind time and time again in my consulting. What an impressive example of valuing the art of disagreeing for the mutual benefit of the mission! But why oh why don’t more churches, more marriages, more businesses, more project teams, realize the need for disagreement? Several years ago I asked that question to the women in a group of couples and singles I was teaching.

 

If You Were on a Team Deciding how to do Something, What Would Keep You From Disagreeing with Somebody?

First the female hands shot above their heads—they didn’t have to ponder the answer, they knew. But then some of the men jumped in. Here are some of the answers:

 

  • I hate to make people feel bad, like making them feel their opinion wasn’t good enough.
  • I don’t want people thinking I’m proud, as if I think my view is better than theirs.
  • I know that if I disagree someone will get offended at me.
  • People get defensive, and when that happens emotions flare and that often leads to people being nasty.
  • I’ve offered my opinion before and the team just moves on without even processing it, so why should I give mine—they’ve already got their minds made up.
  • I don’t think my answer is as good as somebody else’s.
  • I’m afraid somebody will think my suggestion is stupid.

 

The Motive For Disagreement

If you will ponder the above reasons for not disagreeing or submitting one’s opinion, you must conclude that many of these reasons are self-focused, not truth focused. The reasons are reflective of those who are more committed to self-protection than they are to an outcome of excellence.

 

Excellence in living and leading demands living by the laws of love—that one chooses to be committed to doing what is right for the mission(s), for the good of the whole, not just what is desired for to keep oneself safe.

 

How to Disagree in an UNHEALTHY Way

Perhaps you think it is someone else’s issue that your viewpoints are not valued. But have you considered that the way you present your contrary views may be one or a mix of the following: abrasive, dominating, arrogant, unclear, manipulative, overwhelming, inflexible. Disagreeing without discretion, sensitivity, and concern for how your words are being perceived, can be a dangerous dynamic with catastrophic outcomes. Someone put it this way, People have to know you are for them before you can change them.

 

A to Z or A to G?

Sometimes I am in an setting where I can see how someone or a group can get to from A to Z, but they are not ready to go to Z, but they are ready to go from A to G. So, I must be careful not to tsunami them with what they are not ready to understand. So much of what I do is teaching people how to think. This means as a leader I am active helping people to change. This involves disagreeing with them about beliefs or principles they practice. Fortunately, most of the people I work with want to grow, delight in loving correction, and are grateful that someone shows them a more excellent way. But in all of this, I must be conscious of two things: how far they are prepared to go, and the timing of what I say and when I say it. When learning the wisdom of how to disagree, the importance of knowing the timing of disagreement is crucial. I often see things in Ruthie and she in me that need addressed, corrected, changed, but as the song goes, fools rush in, we must use wisdom on when and how we bring correction.

 

Practical Steps When Disagreeing

Let’s say you are part of a decision-making process in a team and you disagree with someone. What are some practical keys to doing it effectively?

  • Ask questions: if your are not sure the full perspective of the one you disagree with, ask questions to make sure you understand the perspective completely before disagreeing.
  • Disagree with a positive and humble attitude: When I disagree, if possible, I attempt to do it in a non-threatening way, as in, instead of implying, You’re wrong! I will approach my opinion as a more excellent way or a more appropriate choice. One of the biggest hindrances to disagreeing with someone is the fear that others will think you are being arrogant. Disagreement can take conclusions to a much higher level. It is not about being arrogant, it is about loving enough to make sure what is true prevails.
  • Don’t OVER-disagree: Disagreeing may not involve injecting a 180-degree opposition to what is being considered. You may just need to steer a decision in a slightly different direction that might make a big difference in the outcome—like maybe only 5%.
  • Consider that the view you disagree with may be a better option than yours: I always try to remember that so often there is not just one right way. One person may do something one way and it works, but another person would do it another way just as successfully, but the end result may be different, not necessarily inferior. Just different. This makes me careful how I disagree.
  • Watch your attitude: Harsh disagreement will evoke defensive attitudes. Calmly posturing yourself on the other side of an issue may open up the minds of others to consider your point of view.
  • Care: Care enough about the final outcome to deny your own personal security for the good of the whole.

 

Finally

I hope this teaching has motivated you to use your voice to effect change for the good in whatever environment you are in. Disagreeing brings alignment to things that are crooked. Disagreeing can happen at a coffee shop with a friend or on social media. It has several synonyms, depending on the situation. Sometimes disagreeing is simply a challenge. Sometimes it is a word of counsel injected into a conversation. I may simply say, Hey, can I offer something I think is a more productive idea?

 

Disagreeing doesn’t have to be tense, it is simply the habit of good people, in a wonderful way, doing their part to help the world and others they live with, to live their best.

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