Disagreeing Without Being Disagreeable - How We Can Be Great Dissenters

Argument and dissent are hallmarks of a healthy team. It is an indication that your team is a collective of diverse voices, and the combination of those voices have the power to dissect problems rapidly, diagnose root cause, and come up with the best solutions for our clients. 

The problem is, there's a fine line between having productive arguments and being unproductively disagreeable. We've all encountered least one person who seems disagreeable to everything. That person often takes a contrarian position on most topics, and end up dragging the team through meetings that:

  • Have an endless laundry list of problems that seem unfocused and trivial
  • Dissolve into petty arguments that diverge from the core problem
  • Last longer than they should, with no action items coming out of it.

Those meetings suck, mainly because everyone is mentally drained afterwards and no one feels they accomplished anything productive.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have colleagues who would disagree, and the team genuinely appreciates their dissent. When they bring up problems, their arguments are often accurate, relevant, and clear.

What is the difference between our two colleagues? What makes one person "productive" and another "disagreeable"?

It's about attitude and reasoning. Good dissenters clearly lay out their reason for disagreeing,  great dissenters are actually incredible problem solvers, and the best dissenters have an attitude that anyone can be wrong, including themselves.

Good Dissenters Make Their Motives And Reasoning Crystal Clear

There are those drop "question bombs" carelessly and disagree with any position without making clear to the team as to why they are dissenting. When team members start asking questions without any reasoning behind them, it forces the team to draw conclusions as to why they are asking those questions. Wild assumptions are made, and team members begin to extrapolate the motives behind the question. I've seen the trainwreck of a team breakdown as a result of this type of careless questioning:

  • Team members take a us-versus-them attitude, with each side assuming the motive for the other
  • Team members resent each other quietly
  • Team members begin to disagree with each other due to past history of disagreements
  • Repeat the cycle

My most recent colleagues buck that ugly trend. Before I started in one of my recent roles, I was given a heads up that one of my colleagues tend to "disagree" often and that I would have to be mindful of this behaviour. Instead of finding him disagreeable, I often found his contrarian positions refreshing and insightful. I came out of every meeting feeling that we made better decisions based on his expert input. Looking back, he regularly did three things before he let his disagreements fly:

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  1. He prefaced his disagreement with a clear motive. He clearly indicates why he's dissenting, and how his dissent affects his work and the work of others.
  2. He often ties his disagreements back to a root "why". Throughout his argument, he can bring up a variety of points, but he always ties it back to a central focus and consistently reminds the team as to the reasoning behind his arguments

In short: he often disagrees for a cause. There's real meaning behind his arguments, and I'd be a fool to callously wave it off as vindictive or careless. Over time, he became one of my most trusted advisors and I truly valued every opinion he gave me without exception.

Great Dissenters Come to the Table with Options

It's great that we have team members who argue, disagree, and dissent. However, even after a most engaging and exhaustive discussion, we may not have any idea on how to solve the problem in front of us. How great would it be if we had a variety of solutions to consider on top of our arguments?

This is where we separate good dissenters from great dissenters. Good dissenters make clear why they disagree with something, but great dissenters argue passionately for a cause and then provide the group with a variety of options to solve the problem at hand. A handful of solutions being brought to the table cements two key characteristics of great dissenters:

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  • Great dissenters don't just raise problems, they're ready to focus on problem-solving instead of just rehashing problems over and over again.
  • Great dissenters don't necessarily prescribe a single solution, they bring to the table additional discussion points so the team can collectively come up with the best solution that works for everyone

The Best Dissenters Know That They're Not Always Right

Many people see dissent as a declaration of a contrarian opinion. However, the most productive dissenters I've worked with use disagreements as a starting point in a discussion to come to a better solution. 

Anyone can have a contrarian opinion, and everyone who dissents may be right, or they may be wrong. The key to being a great dissenter (very much like being a good human being) is to listen and accept the arguments coming from others as they are open to yours. If you are closed off to others when they're disagreeing with you, then that is just plane being disagreeable and unreasonable. 

Go from Good to Great at Saying "I Disagree..."

Dissenting is more than conveying information to the rest of the group. To truly help the team, dissenting really means effectively communicating why you're taking a contrarian position, and bring to the table a variety of options to help solve a problem.

Don't be afraid to bring your experience to the table: say all the things you want to say even if it goes against popular opinion - and be prepared to be a part of a great problem solving process.

My approach to meetings and teamwork is based on the writings of Patrick Lencioni of the Table Group.

This week's article is inspired in part by his book Death By Meeting

Thanks this week to Neil Nimkar for his insight and feedback in making this article better.