Why We Should Disagree More at Work

From Harvard Business Review:

When I worked as a management consultant, I had a client that I thought of as difficult. Let’s call her Marguerite. She and I didn’t see eye to eye on much. I disagreed with the direction she was taking our project, the people she chose to involve, and the pace at which she thought we should do our work (why did she need to go so slow?). But because she was the client, and I was just starting out in my career, I didn’t think it was my place to openly disagree with her. Instead, I forwarded every email she sent me to one of my colleagues and complained about how Marguerite was making bad decisions and not heeding my vague, and likely passive-aggressive, suggestions that we try different approaches.

One day, instead of forwarding the email, I hit reply. I thought I was complaining to my coworker but I was actually sending Marguerite a direct email about what a pain I felt she was. About 15 seconds after I pressed send, I realized what I had done and thought, “I’m going to be fired.” Thinking it’d be better to get it over with quickly, I walked over to my boss’s desk and fessed up. To my surprise, he didn’t get mad or threaten to send me packing. He simply said, “Go apologize.”

Marguerite’s office was 30 blocks north of ours, in Midtown Manhattan. My boss suggested I stop at the florist on my way. For a moment, I contemplated whether being fired would be preferable to having to face Marguerite and what I’d done, but he was right. And when I showed up in Marguerite’s office with an inappropriately large bouquet, she laughed. To her credit, she told me it happens and that she preferred that the next time I disagree with her, I just tell her so that we could talk about it. It was generous and helpful advice.

I’d like to think that the way I behaved with Marguerite was entirely attributable to my lack of experience — but in the years since then, what I’ve observed in research and interviews about conflict at work is that most people don’t want to disagree or know how to do it. In fact, we’ve come to equate saying “I see it differently” or “I don’t agree” with being angry, rude, or unkind, so it makes most people horribly uncomfortable.

To be fair, agreeing is usually easier than confronting someone, at least in the short run. And it feels good when someone nods at something we say, or admits, “I see it the exact same way.” That’s what I wanted Marguerite to do. And rather than accepting that she saw things differently from me, I labeled her “difficult.” This was a mistake — and not just because I ended up embarrassing myself. By thinking that way, I lost out on a potentially productive working relationship. Imagine how much better the project could’ve gone had I openly and respectfully disagreed with Marguerite.

Disagreements are an inevitable, normal, and healthy part of relating to other people. There is no such thing as a conflict-free work environment. You might dream of working in a peaceful utopia, but it wouldn’t be good for your company, your work, or you. In fact, disagreements — when managed well — have lots of positive outcomes. Here are a few.

Read the complete article here.