How to Learn the Art of Productive Disagreement

Differing opinions, divergent viewpoints, and conflicting ideas are healthy and central to progress. They broaden our perspectives, stretch our minds, and help us to arrive at the best possible strategy and practices. Research suggests that constructive disagreement is enormously important to the success of a team. It increases participation in decision making, encourages collaboration, reduces anxiety, and results in better choices and more creative thinking. If you want the best to come out of your teams, it pays to establish a conflict culture. 

On an intellectual level, we know that these statements are true - that constructive disagreement can benefit teams and, in many cases, avoid the disastrous consequences of groupthink. So why do modern organizations go out of their way to eliminate any friction points? Why, on a personal level, do many of us find conflict so darn difficult?

Why is productive disagreement so hard?

The main reason is that we're not impartial observers of our own behavior. When things go well, it's because we're talented and conscientious. When things go badly, it's because someone else made a mistake. We don't take the time to ponder and reflect on the different causes of a problem because this takes time and effort. And it might expose some uncomfortable truths (we weren't conscientious, and it was our fault).

The second phenomenon is something called confirmation bias, the psychology of wanting something to be true so badly that we end up believing it is true. This error leads us to ignore or reject information that casts doubt on our opinion. An individual gripped by confirmation bias might avoid vigorous debate and discussion because they're only interested in facts that are consistent with what they already believe. Typically, they set out to destroy the alternative viewpoint, rather than integrating it.

The third reason why disagreement is so hard is associated with groups. When people belong to a group, they are reluctant to deviate from the consensus within that group, because they're afraid of being ostracized. You may be the most rational, agreeable and broad-minded person in the room, but if you disagree with the group, then you're seen as a traitor. In her Ted Talk, "Dare to Disagree," Margaret Heffernan cites a survey in which 85 percent of American and European executives admitted to having concerns at work that they were afraid to raise. Primarily they were afraid getting embroiled in arguments that they did not know how to manage, and felt that they were bound to lose. Humans are social creatures. We'd rather bite our tongue than risk social isolation.

These are not the only obstacles to productive disagreement. Such personality traits as conflict aversion, being close-minded, egotism, fear of change, fear of loss of control, and feeling uncomfortable with ambiguity can cause us to shut down, ignore competing suggestions, and simply agree.

"A sane and normal society is one in which people habitually disagree" - Carl Jung

For productive disagreement to become habitual, we need to deconstruct the typical patterns of debate, where team members enter conversation as if it were a boxing ring. In this model, the sole aim is to explain why your opinion is right and others are wrong. A typical session might open with everyone giving their opinion early in the game, before they've had an opportunity to ask questions or explore ideas with each other. Oddly enough, people start taking sides almost immediately, boorishly attempting to convince any dissenters they are wrong. Conflicting data is ignored not assimilated, and the participants become more entrenched in their differing opinions. The only possible outcome is lose-lose.

The good news is, it only takes one or two people to break the cycle of aggressive conflict. Here are some ways to help your team disagree constructively, without being disagreeable.

Take a close look at your teams. The best debating partners aren't echo chambers. Make sure you include people of different personalities, backgrounds, experiences and ways of thinking, and find ways to engage with them. As a leader, you must create the environment and personalities for healthy disagreement to take place.

Encourage everyone to hold off giving an opinion about an issue for as long as they can. Once someone gives their opinion, they feel compelled to ferociously defend it at the expense of all dissenting views.

Create a space where people can personally detach from their position. If people involve themselves emotionally with their positions, they will have a harder time being objective about them. Encourage team members to reflect on their opinions dispassionately. It's never a matter of contradicting the personality of another, simply one of getting the best results.

As an exercise, ask everyone to gather data that opposes their own viewpoint. Ask participants to actively disconfirm their own ideas. Have people prove themselves wrong.

Give up the need for harmony. People don't have to agree with each other on every point. Your job is to encourage dissent around each theory - this isn't conflict, it's creative thinking.

Allocate plenty of time for asking questions. Make sure that everyone understands the details of an argument before they form an opinion on it.

Look for common ground. This can serve as a solid foundation on which to arrive at a mutually agreeable outcome.

Take your time. Rushing will encourage you to jump straight to superficial conclusions. You need time to produce more powerful solutions.

Look for signs that conflict is getting out of hand. Is tension becoming unhealthy? Are people making personal criticisms? Are clandestine sub groups meeting around the water cooler? If you spot these signs, bring people back to the table. Remind them of the reasons why productive disagreement is so much more powerful than passive collaboration. Re-establish the rules.

Final Thoughts

Even if most of us are uncomfortable with the idea of challenge and disagreement, we can also recognize the massive benefits of having a constructive exchange. Good teams need friction points; they clarify and sharpen the team's thinking and factor multiple wisdoms into their plans and approaches to situations.

Creating a culture of constructive conflict can be difficult. But, if you practice these new approaches, you'll find that most people will enjoy tackling challenges respectfully and productively. The majority of your team members want to think creatively, solve problems, and maintain positive relationships with their coworkers, and will feel far more committed to decisions reached this way.  When you set the stage for productive disagreement, everybody wins.

Molly Owens

Molly Owens is the founder and CEO of Truity. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and holds a master's degree in counseling psychology. She began working with personality assessments in 2006, and in 2012 founded Truity with the goal of making robust, scientifically validated assessments more accessible and user-friendly.

Molly is an ENTP and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she enjoys elaborate cooking projects, murder mysteries, and exploring with her husband and son.

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