Making organizational choices, whether in budgeting resources or designing new products, invariably involves informed argument between strong individuals with differing backgrounds, perspectives and motivations. The quality of such decisions depends on whether diverse viewpoints can freely emerge and how disagreements between participants are handled to reach consensus.
Informed and well-explored disagreement that allows for self-aware exploration of the issues at hand is the key to making better and more creative group decisions. Executives and team leaders should embrace informed disagreement. This sets the stage for a courteous exchange of member perspectives and concerns at meetings, which in turn will improve the participation level and creativity of the entire group.
The difficulty in fostering creative disagreement in the workplace arises when those who disagree harden their difference by becoming disagreeable as they argue points of view. What too often ensues is acrimony and divisiveness as things get out of control.
For example, an advertising agency handles our brochure work. Generally we at the office review their suggestions, make changes, and after several iterations, make a decision. Disagreements between them and us frequently arise but are usually manageable. We are rarely privy to differences between them and within their organization.
However one time, a disagreement with us arose regarding their choice of brochure photos to represent attendees at typical seminars. While we had all previously agreed that the brochure would contain pictures of attendees listening to a speaker, nothing had been decided as to exactly what was to be pictures. We awaited their recommendations and sample photos.
The moment our meeting with the agency started their copywriter and graphic artist began to argue about the photos. Suddenly, to our consternation as customers, the style and composition of the photos and brochure was not the problem. Their dislike for one another was.
It began to escalate as the copywriter shouted that his coworker always put him and his ideas down. Frankly, we were embarrassed at the outburst. A simple difference of opinion had exploded into open conflict, recrimination and criticism.
After further shouting, we helped redirect the matter by specifying in greater detail what we wanted: one or two pictures of attendees at a seminar listening to a speaker, and two or three photos of male and female executives at a conference table speaking to one another while trying to settle a pricing, design or budget difference.
The next day the advertising agency found some archive photos that matched our needs and incorporated them into our brochure. Looking back at the affair, I think that the best picture might well have been a before and after photograph of the two advertising men actually arguing then settling this dispute in our office.
In the past, differences and disagreements in the workplace were discouraged. Today’s executives are more willing to expose conflicting ideas to open and rational debate. The problem is that those involved tend all too soon to add strong emotional content to the issues under contention, thereby heating the debate. Instead of focusing on the merits of opposing positions, each side attacks and disparages the opposition. By doing so they make it harder to reach agreement.