Ever felt like you’re heading to the dark side when you’re in a disagreement?

“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

Yoda, Jedi Master.

Fear is also the path to destructive disagreements… the kind of disagreements that create hurt feelings, spoil relationships and drag down productivity.

But disagreeing is important and team’s that avoid it, rushing into agreement too quickly are not challenging themselves with new ideas or welcoming contrasting opinions that could improve what they deliver.

So let’s explore a more constructive way to disagree that leaves the fear behind and empowers the team to move forward.

High performing teams disagree

A high performing team disagrees often, its part and parcel of designing solutions, solving issues and working out a team’s strategy and objectives. A highly productive team shares different ideas, contrasting views and competing priorities. These different opinions and disagreements are shared and discussed openly and constructively and a positive way forward is found. To help you disagree more constructively we’re going to share our ideas on:

What can make disagreements destructive

What does destructive disagreement do to a team

What does constructive disagreement look like

What can constructive disagreement give a team

Practical ways to learn how to disagree constructively

What can make disagreements destructive?

We make disagreeing destructive when we make it personal. When we want to either disagree with what’s being said, or when someone has just disagreed with us; if we focus on the person it rarely works out well.

“You’re wrong”

“You’re not qualified to comment”

“You don’t understand”

“You don’t have all the facts”

“Your idea is flawed”

All these responses focus on the person and will therefore trigger our natural stress / protection responses – which is not a state where our brains can do their best thinking.

Even when we think we’re focusing on the idea or the opinion by saying “Your idea is flawed” or “That won’t work” it can still be received as a personal attack. This is because when we offer an opinion we are putting ourselves out there at risk; so when someone knocks that idea down it can hurt.

This is why the second reason disagreements can be destructive is so powerful. When we respond with early judgement, or your opinion is criticised as soon as you share it this is seen by our brains as a threat. Cortisol floods our system and we either give up on the idea or jump straight into defence mode.

Destructive disagreement rots culture & harms productivity

When we feel ignored, unable to speak up or fear of contributions will get shouted down, it can lead us toward becoming a passenger or even a prisoner in the team.

Disagreeing in ways that cause hurt feelings, shame or triggers the need to protect ourselves makes us very likely to disengage, not challenge ourselves and drift. This in turn can lead to disillusionment and downright disruption.

A team with passengers and prisoners has low productivity and a poor culture.

Constructive disagreement – building better products, delivering better services

We use the term constructive disagreement because it’s an essential component of doing better work. When sharing different opinions is done in an atmosphere of mutual respect, curiosity and exploration it helps the team design and deliver better services and keep moving forward. Presenting different, even opposing views, exploring all options rather than rushing into safe decisions helps teams build and deliver better.

What can constructive disagreement give a team?

There is a lot of talk about high trust and psychological safety in teams and we’re told how important these things are – but how do you actually achieve it? Learning to disagree constructively is a great way to create a high trust and a safe space where people are comfortable speaking up and challenge is welcomed.

Wider perspectives, fewer blind spots

When people practise constructive disagreement there is more sharing of different perspectives and points of view as people are not scared about the reaction they might get from others.

Better decision making – made faster

Bringing more ideas to the table might sound like a recipe for delay and lots more pondering. But when people offer up different opinions without fear, act willingly and without hesitation, when all ideas are explored fully and not dismissed, decision making is not only improved, it gets faster as the process is lean and open.

More engagement – people leaning in

When we feel heard and our ideas fairly explored it makes us feel like a valuable part of the team. The need to belong and be part of a group is a very important human motivation, so if this need is met we feel safe and much more engaged.

Comfort with challenge – a growth mindset

When a team can disagree well, people share their opinions and welcome challenges as they understand the positive intent behind that challenge. Being part of a purposeful exploration of different ideas, that is free from fear and shame leads to better decisions and learning.