Timothy R. Clark: Give people a license to disagree

Published: Friday, Feb. 28 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

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There’s an unmistakable pattern among effective leaders and organizations — they give people a license to disagree.

In a recent New York Times interview with Satya Nadella, the newly appointed CEO of Microsoft, Nadella reflected on his years of interaction with Bill Gates and observed, “You can push back on him. He’ll argue with you vigorously for a couple of minutes, and then he’ll be the first person to say, “Oh, you’re right.”

If we reach back in history, the pattern is the same. Consider Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, who is the only American soldier other than George Washington to hold the rank of “General of the Armies.” His protégé, Gen. George C. Marshall, said of him, “I have never seen a man who could listen to as much criticism. You could say what you pleased as long as it was straight, constructive criticism.”

Why does giving others a license to disagree matter so much? Two reasons: First, it creates superior performance through the friction of rich dialogue. Second, it’s the one behavioral practice most responsible for building confidence in others. Ronald Heifetz, professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, says, “The leader’s most important role is to instill confidence in people.”

Disagreement is the natural state of tension that precedes an act of creation or resolution. Can you think of a knotty problem you solved without the need to sift ideas and refine thinking?

As I work across different industries and sectors of society, I see stark differences in patterns of disagreement and cultures of candor.

For example, in organizations that rely heavily on hierarchy and a lot of rules, the permission to disagree is typically limited because a compliant chain of command is enthroned as the highest value.

A pattern of cautious inquiry and censored disagreement is particularly strong in basic industries, utilities, the military and law enforcement agencies. Where risk is high and the margin of error is low, paternalism often trumps participation to create a fear-based organization with oceans of silence and undercurrents of rebellion.

Here, you find people nodding their heads approvingly, offering gratuitous praise for a proposed course of action, or simply keeping quiet. This pattern indicates compliance out of fear of retribution, artificial consensus out of apathy, or alignment that is untested.

When there’s a penalty for disagreement, people stop doing it. And yet it’s as natural for people to engage in rigorous debate as it is to rest or play. If you’re not allowed to disagree, it's not only undesirable, it's nonhuman.

When we can’t speak our mind, we get the outputs of an echo chamber — unexamined ideas, unscrutinized decisions and unvetted proposals.

I see a similar pattern in government, education and health care, but for different reasons. In these sectors, the prevailing culture is to make nice out of a buffered sense of accountability mixed with an elevated sense of purpose. People are generally polite and agreeable, but they don’t practice penetrating directness when addressing problems and challenges.

Finally, there’s the technology sector — a sector whose very survival is based on innovation. The cultural DNA of most technology firms is one of robust dialogue and hard-hitting debate.

Leaders in this space don’t always open the door to passion and insight while closing it on rancor, strife and contention, but they are the best I’ve seen. Part of what the Googles of the world are proving is that the real incubator of innovation is the social production system — the way people interact and solve problems. If you can stimulate, tolerate and channel disagreement, you have found the ultimate source of competitive advantage.

There’s a right way to render a contrary opinion. It’s the leader’s job to give people a license to disagree and then teach them how without being disagreeable.

The way an organization handles disagreement is a primary measure of culture and an accurate predictor of performance. The way an individual handles disagreement is a primary measure of emotional intelligence and an accurate predictor of leadership potential.

Do you disagree?

Timothy R. Clark is the founder of TRClark LLC, a management consulting and leadership development organization. He newest book, "The Employee Engagement Mindset," has just been released from McGraw-Hill. Email: trclark@trclark.net

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