I recently had a difference of opinion with a colleague at work regarding a business decision. My colleague and I could not resolve the issue at our level so it was escalated one level up.
I was well prepared. I put together a compelling case, mustered all of my best arguments, debated vigorously and, ultimately… failed to prevail. People sitting higher up in the organization, in their wisdom, decided to side with my colleague’s recommendation.
I was asked after the fact if I was unhappy with the decision, and some of the comments seemed to imply that there might be some shame in the fact that the decision had gone against me — that I might have lost face on some level. That is a very unhealthy way of looking at things.
The incident that I just described may sound to some as the opposite of effective collaboration. After all, isn’t an adversarial process the exact opposite of a collaborative one? It is not, and that is something many people and organisations get wrong about collaboration.
I believe strongly in collaboration — very little on any significant scale can be accomplished without it. But it is unhelpful for leaders to keep hammering on the importance of collaboration without explaining what it actually is, and what it definately isn’t.
One of the things that effective collaboration does not entail is an obligation to agree with your colleagues on everything. And it certainly does not require keeping quiet when you disagree with the course of action that is being proposed, even if you are the only one who is not on side.
Unfortunately, I have sometime heard people say things like: “If I disagree and stand my ground, if I escalate issues, others will complain that I’m being difficult and uncollaborative, and I will get punished on my performance review, my year-end bonus, or worse.” That kind of thinking is toxic because it denotes a culture of fear, albeit fear in the name of greater collaboration.
There is, in fact, such a thing as pathological consensus-seeking. This kind if consensus-seeking stifles free speech (parrhesia), discourages the airing out of diverse points of view, and gags productive debate. So-called “collaboration” of this nature hampers innovation and sooner or later, in an age of rapid change, will harm your business.
The ultimate objective of collaboration, after all, should be the success of the collaborative entity — the team, the division, the business as a whole. If that is true and collaboration is motivated by an honest interest in the greater good, how then can anyone keep quiet in the face of a decision or course of action that he or she believes is misguided and will result in an undesirable outcome? And conversely, why would you try to shut down debate if you are serious about seeking the best possible outcome for the organization?
True collaboration requires courage — the courage to speak your mind and stand your ground when you believe that the team is going down a wrong path. It requires respect — the respect that makes you stop and listen to points of view that you disagree with. But truly respectful debate, in my view, requires something more: That you not patronize others by holding back on pleading your case, as if it was somehow beyond their ability to mount a worthy rebuttal.
Collaboration does not require agreeing with others on everything, but disagreeing in a way that is productive and respectful is becoming a lost art. I wrote about this recently in a piece titled “To fight fairly and with respect“, which I invite you to read as a companion piece to the present article.
Suffice to say for now that if you are tempted to project less than honorable intentions on people who stand up to you, you should stop doing so. If you often find yourself whispering to friends and colleagues that this other person is disruptive because he or she won’t rally to your views (or the views of the majority), pause and ask yourself if it is perhaps not your own behaviour which is doing a disservice to the organization. And if you find yourself feeling slighted at every turn, remember that passion and intensity do not equate aggression.
So what should you do when you disagree with colleagues on business matters? Here’s my suggestion in six easy steps:
- Create a forum for differences to be aired out.
- Have the various parties present their respective cases (verbally, in writing or a combination of both — whatever works best for the people involved).
- Debate vigorously and don’t stop until you have looked at the question from every possible angle.
- If agreement emerges — as it sometime will — you are done.
- If disagreement persists, stop the debate as there is no point in continuing and nobody should be bullied by their peers into rallying to the prevailing (or majority) opinion against their honestly held views.
- Escalate without fear or shame to a more senior authority and repeat steps 2 to 4.
Resolving disagreements in the way described above requires a decision-maker who is fair, impartial and competent; a process that is fair and open, and a decision that is clearly articulated and based on the relevant facts (think of it as due process). Most people, under such conditions, will be able to put a difference of opinion behind them and move on.
Getting back to the incident that I was describing at the beginning of this story, was I unhappy (or – God forbid – angry) that my point of view did not ultimately prevail? I can honestly say that I wasn’t and here’s why: I was given an opportunity to argue my case without restraint, before experienced and rational people whom I respect greatly, against a worthy opponent who honored me by debating me with every possible vigor. My views were given an honest hearing and, when everything was said and done, the process had been fair.
Time now to rally behind the decision that has been made and to move on as one towards the goal that has been set.