The Disagreement Quota

We cannot always agree on everything. I’d be the first to vouch for the importance of speaking up, candor, and chutzpah for the formation of a healthy culture. Nevertheless, there are disagreements, and then there are disagreements. How should you tackle the different situations?

To develop a mental model for handling disagreement, I refer to one of the axioms of effective leadership in my upcoming book, The Tech Executive Operating System. That axiom is that great teams are made of layers of force multipliers. As an executive, you depend on managers and leaders under you to leverage themselves to the fullest in order to create a world-class team.

That means that you have to strike a balance: they have to speak up and voice their opinions, so you all enjoy the fruit of each other’s diverse thoughts, but they cannot all be thinking about things entirely differently from you, or you’ll be herding cats.

When faced with a disagreement with one of your managers, consider it based on two aspects: how does the decision you’re considering affect company values and strategy, and how strong is that manager’s opinion? Given that, let us try and make sense of the trade-off with the consultant’s trusty tool, the double-axis chart.

First, if it’s a very tactical decision and the manager’s disagreement isn’t that strong, then there’s no big deal. It’s the healthy day-to-day speaking up and questioning that you should be expecting. Talk it over and move on; things will be fine.

On the other hand, for tactical decisions where a manager under you holds a firm opinion, I advise my executive clients to learn to let go. We all claim that we want to provide our teams with autonomy, and this is the perfect way to train that muscle. Have a healthy discussion, which by itself is worthwhile for creating a better relationship and trust. Then, if you still disagree, let your manager have it her way. This is the kind of opportunity where you can let people try things on their own and evolve. You can be there to coach them along the way, of course, but you should not micro-manage them.

Now, we get to the trickier parts when the decisions that cause disagreement are not tactical. On the contrary, these are decisions that can be viewed as strategic or that should be entirely in synergy with the company’s values or mission. Consider a decision that goes against how you envision your organization or that will hurt your competitive advantage. If the manager has objections or different ideas but is not dead set on doing things their way, then this is the classic disagree and commit moment. As Jeff Bezos wrote in one of his letters, this is the quickest and healthiest way to treat such situations. Ask the manager to disagree and commit, and move on. By the way, notice that the previous case, “letting go,” is also a disagree-and-commit moment, but from your perspective.

Finally, we should discuss the most crucial type of disagreement to get right and the toughest. What should you do if you find a strong disagreement about a decision that is core to your strategy or values? Indeed, there’s no sense in changing your strategy over such a disagreement, and many executives expect a disagree-and-commit moment to follow. However, when the conflict is strong, you are actually facing misalignment. That means that the other person cannot truly commit, because they wholeheartedly object to your vision. Even if they honestly gave it their best shot, they would not be likely to succeed. I once saw a real-life scenario of an executive who failed to hire people for his team because he did not believe in the company’s direction and strategy. He disagreed and committed harakiri, even though he had the best intentions.

Sometimes, you have to remember that your managers all enjoy a position of trust. Just as a new administration replaces people with those it believes will enact its views, so should you ensure that you trust your leaders when it comes to strategy and vision. I know that this might come off as cold or harsh, but it is true nevertheless. You have to have candor, personally and with your team, and face the truth. Otherwise, you will be doing everyone involved a disservice.

That’s because we only have a limited “disagreement quota.” You and I can disagree about material subjects to a certain amount. Any more than that, and we become incompatible. It doesn’t necessarily mean that either person is wrong or bad and their job, but sometimes that combination doesn’t work out. There are situations where we have to part ways with great people because we think differently on crucial matters. That is just the way of the world, and you have to accept that as part of your executive responsibility.

On a final note, notice how this whole thing flowed from the axiom we started with. Such is the power of clear guidelines and tools that can be used and shared among your leadership team. The Tech Executive Operating System, coming out in April 2021, is all about this. Subscribe below to get updates and freebies.