Hot Tips for Healthy Disagreement

When it comes to building a team of founders for a small business, there’s a lot of talk about compatibility and complementing each other’s skills. Those are important, for sure, but there is another part of the team dynamic that we’d like to dig into today-- space for healthy, constructive disagreement. This is something where we feel our team excels and we’d like to share some tips which have helped us, so that you can create space for healthy disagreement in your work and personal life too.


When a team of any size puts their heads together to work on a project, there will naturally be a variety of ideas and some initial disagreement about which path(s) to take. In teams without structure to keep conversation and disagreements moving constructively, there may not truly be room for disagreement. The team may naturally fall behind someone who is explicitly or implicitly “the leader” due to power dynamics and follow their proposed direction even if they feel a deep disagreement. This leads to a lack of engagement, resentment, and poor outcomes.


David Marquet examines unhealthy team dynamics in his powerful book, Leadership is Language. Marquet looks at a real-life team of mariners aboard the SS El Faro who disagreed with their Captain’s plan to sail towards a hurricane’s path, but there was no room to express disagreement. The conversations of those mariners were recorded, showing that the crew members discussed their grave concerns among themselves, but were unable to openly disagree or sway the captain. As a result of this poor decision and poor communication, the ship was tragically lost. Thankfully, most of our readers will likely not face life or death maritime decisions in their workplaces. However, this is an extreme example of a dynamic many of us have experienced at some point -- working in a group where there is no room to safely express a different perspective and be heard or respected.


On the other end of the spectrum, a team can be so focused on creating space for everyone’s ideas and pleasing all parties, that they can’t take decisive action when it’s needed. Meetings drag on, plans are made without laser-focus on the actual stakeholders, decisions require too many sign-offs, and the business gets stuck.


So, how can a company build a culture that strikes a better balance? Take steps to create space for healthy disagreement!

Here are our top 7 concrete tips:


1. Assume Positive Intent


Assume positive intent. Even if someone is pitching an idea that you think is way off track, remember that you’re on the same team, working towards the same goals. Clarify the overarching goal and then calmly express why you don’t believe something aligns with that goal. Laser-focus on choosing a positive direction for the company and the goals, irrespective of who pitched it.


2. Encourage Idea Sharing


Actively encourage team members to throw out ideas… even half-baked ones! Express gratitude and respect when someone does so, and thank others for listening when you share. Say “thank you” or “nice job”, send a clearly encouraging emoji or gif, give a public shoutout, or send a thoughtful private note. If your team members know that they have your respect and you care about their opinion enough to seek it and thank them for sharing it, they’re more likely to keep expressing themselves.


3. Show You’re Listening


Really listen when someone is talking, in whatever form that takes for you. Some people take notes, some people nod, whatever. Ask questions. Give a damn. Show that you care about their opinion, especially if you don’t agree. Definitely don’t talk over each other. This can take extra mindfulness over the phone or Zoom, but it’s worth it to maintain an environment of respect.


4. Understand the Conversation Type


Label or recognize the type of conversation you’re having, which is part of skillfully “reading a room”. If it’s a brainstorming session, it’s the time to throw out ideas, not the time to strike things off the list. And when it’s explicitly time to dig into ideas and play devil’s advocate, do so calmly without any personal attack.


Bonus! Poking holes in ideas, done consistently and well, creates a positive team norm of challenging ideas and thinking a few steps ahead. If you dig enough, all ideas have a weakness somewhere. Plan with that in mind!


5. Calmly Acknowledge When Things Go Awry


Unhappy or uncomfortable with something that was said or done? Say so! Calmly and without personal attack, “you statements”, or dramatic language. Be proactive and schedule an appropriate length of time to discuss it. Give others a heads up about the topic so that they can prepare their thoughts ahead of time and not feel blindsided or attacked. Make it a norm to talk about disagreements and the emotions around them.


6. Say Sorry


Did you make a misstep in your communication? That’s okay. It happens to everyone. Apologize very specifically for what went awry and who/what it affected. Genuine apologies can sometimes even strengthen relationships more than constant agreement.


7. Hit Pause When Needed


If people are drained and begin to fall off course from the above, end or pause the meeting and revisit the topic after a break. It’s okay to realize that a discussion isn’t going well. It’s normal for passionate people to care about business decisions, and that care can come off more aggressively than someone means to. The important part is to act on it, and encourage those involved to go for a walk, get some tea/coffee/food, or sleep on it. That “time-out time” can also lead to brilliant break-throughs.

These tips are not to paint the picture that every Tell Me More Gifts meeting is all sunshine and rainbows. Or that we’re boring squares, robotically encouraging one another over Zoom. We have lively discussions that feel fun, connecting, and definitely include disagreeing with each other. This is possible because we actively build and work to maintain a culture where we all know the other team members respect us and actively want to hear what we have to say. We listen, examine, disagree, make decisions, test the decisions, revisit, tweak, repeat.


Be kind, be cool, be effective, and always be mindful about the culture you’re building.


Wishing you some healthy disagreement!