Use Disagreement to Build Stronger Teams

by Audrey Epstein

Because I facilitate team sessions for a living, I’ve seen a lot of team interactions. All kinds of drama, some shouting and tears, but also a lot of laughter, joy and bold action. Much about teamwork has been researched, dissected and discussed. Yet lately, situations have come forward that fall into an unexplored topic: how to get team members to disagree. 

What do you do as a team member, if, after all the discussion and debate, the hours the team talked about a new direction, plan, or policy, you still disagree? What I see happen on most teams is acquiescence — giving in or just going along. It’s hard for a person to know the line between sticking to her views and aligning with the team. Are you a bad team player if you don’t agree? 

For a long time, I have facilitated team problem-solving sessions in the same way: First, explore the issue from all sides, uncovering a comprehensive view of the current state and root causes. Next, brainstorm options and agree on a broad path forward. And finally, develop recommendations and specific action plans.

During the first two steps, team members share their views, voice concerns, ask probing questions, debate and discuss. I ensure people know it’s a safe environment to dissent and challenge. And then, at a certain point, when we have brainstormed and kicked around options, we agree on a future state. From that, we move into action planning. Once plans and next steps are identified, I deem the team session a home run. We have moved from chaos into order, from theory into action. It always feels like a triumph of team process and alignment. 

Until it suddenly didn’t. At a recent team session, I didn’t like the feeling in the room at the end of Step 3. Everyone had dutifully done his or her breakout work, devising strong, meaty action plans. Yet, the energy was all off. Team members seemed deflated instead of enthused. So, I decided to do a check in. 

I asked everyone to show, using hand signals from fist to five, how they felt about bringing this plan forward to the organization. Here are the fist-to-five criteria I used:

Fist: over my dead body

1–2: serious concerns and not really on board

3: I can live with it, but …

4: feeling pretty darn good

5: can’t wait to get started

Based on the quality of the work they had done to develop strong plans and recommendations, I expected all 4s and 5s. What I saw around the room astounded me. Responses ranged from two-and-a-half to five. I couldn’t believe there were still three team members with serious, stop-the-presses concerns. As we started talking about it, here is some of what I heard:

  • “I still don’t believe this project should take precedence over our other priorities. And I don’t think we can get those and this done.”
  • “I don’t feel we have proven the ROI. I’m not convinced it will really impact our goals.”

I was panicked. All eyes were looking at me with a “Now what?” stare, especially the team leader. Instead of trying to fix things, I decided to ask some questions. 

  • “Why did you do the action planning if you still didn’t agree with the solution?” 
  • “What made you feel that you couldn’t say this earlier in the day? What held you back?”

I learned that team members felt swept along by the process, guilty about not going along with what the team leader so obviously wanted, and eager to demonstrate alignment and teamwork. We ended the day in a completely different place from what I’d expected. We decided to delay any further action on this project until it could be evaluated in the context of the larger portfolio. It was disconcerting to me. If I hadn’t checked in when I had, we would have ended the day with timelines and actions that fully one-third of the team didn’t believe in, and I (and the team leader) would have left with a false sense of unity. 

How often does this unspoken disagreement happen on teams? Maybe all the time? So, what can be done to ensure team members don’t just give up too early? 

Create real space for disagreement. Team leaders should discuss the importance of balancing candor with alignment. It’s important to create a team norm around members speaking up and sharing their view, even when it isn’t popular. Team leaders can talk with the team about the challenges of groupthink and how to avoid this common problem. Also, when doing team problem-solving, team leaders should ask good questions to promote speaking up, such as:

  • What’s a contrary view? 
  • What have we not considered? 
  • Why would this fail? 
  • What’s the one thing holding you back from full support?
  • What has not been said that we should discuss before we move on?

Check in on how people are feeling. We are focused in business on facts and data. And, while we shouldn’t make our decisions solely using “gut feel,” we shouldn’t ignore our intuition and our inner voice, which usually expresses our fears and concerns. Leaders should get team members to talk about their commitment level. Again, asking questions is the best way to understand what’s on others’ minds.

  • Now that we have talked this issue through, how would you rate its importance against our other priorities?
  • If you had to communicate this plan to the organization tomorrow, how would you feel about it?
  • What still holds you back from full commitment to this plan?

Avoid skewing the direction based on personal views. Team leaders who have already decided on the direction or the outcome should tell the team. I have heard from many clients that they are frustrated by bosses who pretend to want input to support collaboration but have already made up their minds. It is acceptable for leaders to sometimes decide without full buy-in; companies are not democracies. But team leaders who really want to hear unbiased views should share theirs last. 

Don’t get me wrong; I love building team alignment and collaboration. But I also think we need to work just as hard to promote divergent thinking and unpopular views. Team leaders can build a stronger team by getting good at disagreeing.   

Audrey Epstein is a partner at consulting firm The Trispective Group and co-author of The Loyalist Team: How Trust, Candor and Authenticity Create Great Organizations. The firm offers a free team snapshot assessment on its website.


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