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  • Writer's pictureCharles Edge

Learn To Agree Even When We Disagree

One aspect of leadership that’s important is consensus building. Let’s not confuse getting to the point of a unanimous vote with the idea of a consensus. Sometimes a leader needs to learn to find a common place where we can agree with and amongst our teams.

When different people have different opinions, it’s easy to let that stop the work we’re doing dead in its tracks. That might be how to build a feature, where to build a button, how to go to market, where to advertise, or even just who should deliver coffee to the office. Working with others isn’t always easy. And disagreements happen. We want to give space for them to work themselves out but also don’t want to be avoidant in our behaviors. Let’s look at a few techniques to use when these happen.

People often disagree because they don’t hear one another. This can be the easiest to overcome. Getting to a consensus then involves getting people to hear and feel heard. Here, we make sure to bring everyone into a conversation and try to guide different stakeholders to hear or even repeat what the other is saying. We also want them to sit on it and think more deeply.

Even when heard, we have different values, experiences, needs, and goals. This means we might not understand what we’re hearing in the way intended. Here, we have to identify what’s causing people not to understand the position of others and bridge that gap. This is typically done by unpacking the different backgrounds and can be incredibly rewarding as (dropping mad secret wisdom here) we learn more from diverse points of view than sitting in an echo chamber of our own. OK, so not so secret wisdom.

The hardest thing to overcome in a disagreement is when it’s not just based on communication. Personalities, politics, past history, and a host of other factors can get in the way of achieving a consensus. This might become untenable in smaller organizations - as we have just a handful of people on the team and anything that gets in the way of productivity is more impactful. There are a few techniques, that include:

  • Bring in an outside opinion. This might be different for different issues. Business issues could involve bringing in a board member with experience in the domain. Technical issues might involve hiring a consultant or calling that one friend who happens to be an expert in the domain. A bevvy of outside opinions can help cloud the answer but they can also help bring clarity and diverse opinions without the baggage of personality or politics.

  • Take a break. Maybe discuss the issues privately with the stakeholders or just give them space to work things out. Not everything can work itself out immediately.

  • Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of different opinions. Here, we can build a criteria list and score the attributes of each item on the list, use post-it notes to stack rank things, and have fun with it. Fun happens to diffuse personality things in many cases.

  • Lay out alternative views. This allows us to find an alternative solution. Sometimes the best solution is neither point of view but instead a new and innovative approach that’s in the middle. Again, there’s a reason we want a diversity of opinions and people in our organization. There’s a wealth of information on business sites for merging alternatives so feel free to continue reading about different techniques as there are entire books dedicated to the topic!

Sometimes we won’t be able to find consensus. Minor things like coffee can just go by the wayside. If a leader wants to get an important workstream back on track, though, we need to step in. Think of this as a finite resource - we don’t want to take sides or pick favorites or disturb the natural order too much or we are considered controlling or surrounding ourselves with people who just agree with us. But we can’t allow disagreement to stifle innovation.

Note: We didn't cover politics or non-work related aspects of disagreements we might see in the workplace in this article. We want people to be able to bring their whole selves into the workplace but that will come with challenges a diverse company. If we had a good answer for that we'd probably be running for office rather than writing blog posts!

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