The Power of Constructive Disagreement

Some cultures and companies are known to disguise criticism as compliments, by “sugarcoating” the tough stuff. Americans are notorious for this, in fact. While chronic sugarcoaters may have the best intentions, staying mum about difficult topics in the workplace could actually complicate matters further.

the power of constructive disagreement

Whether it’s about two employees with different working styles, managing a conflict in the office, or trying to offer an opinion on an idea that might misfire, sometimes it’s tough to disagree. Miscommunication in the workplace can be caused by differences in generation, background, and experiences, but it’s imperative to push your employees to speak honestly with one another.

By striving to foster a healthy working environment, you’ll encourage an attitude of open interaction and communication. It may be second nature to try and avoid conflict, but teach your employees to see these differences in opinion as “constructive disagreement,” and learn how your office can benefit from your staff’s collective perspectives.

Make Your Mission Clear

Depending on your organization, your office most likely has a diverse group of personalities. From the quiet to the querulous, crazy or composed, everyone has a different way of expressing themselves in bad times and in good. But if you’ve noticed that your employees might not be expressing themselves in a way that’s conducive to a healthy work environment, then make a point of addressing this issue.

Some of your employees may be too bombastic, speaking up and starting fights where they don’t belong. However, others may be silently sitting in the corner, making notes of issues where they feel changes should be made.

To level the playing field, communicate your goals to your office in whatever manner is most effective. For some businesses, this may be an email memo. Or perhaps you need to explain to each department head, who will then inform his team. Even an all-team meeting may bring the best results, to make sure everyone hears what you’re saying. But take the time to express why you’re placing so much value on free speech within your organization.

Stress to your employees how much you appreciate their feedback, and that to build a more successful team, you’re expecting more input, even when it comes to disagreements. By setting the tone, you’ll show your staff that this is a serious matter, one to be taken to heart.

Find a Common Language

In the heat of the moment, it can be easy for employees to make accusations or use a harsher tone than intended. Confusion over the deadline for a project may result in heightened tension and stress. So within your organization, work with your HR managers to determine a company-wide “framing statement” for employees to utilize. The “I-Statement” is a well-known framework when it comes to mediation, or handling difficult discussions.

The beauty of the “I-statement” is that it’s a useful tool for both the shy and the shouting types of employees. For those who are typically boisterous, being forced to frame their feelings in a respectful and quiet manner will remind them to stay calm. And for the more meek colleagues, too hesitant to speak up, the I-statement provides a feeling of security and reliability; a “tried and true” method, so to say.

The I-Statement refocuses the conversation on the individual speaking, and how they feel as a result of the issue at hand – “I feel (blank) because (blank). I’d like/I want/I need (blank).” So rather than pointing a finger of blame at anyone else, it encourages your employees to express how the situation affects them directly. Here’s how it works:

One employee, Erica, routinely takes credit for other people’s work. Whether intentional or not, she prides herself on her “leadership skills,” her ability to bring many different colleagues together and compile their components into a final package. However, this also means she forgets to give credit where credit is due. Another colleague, Randolph, has had enough.


Randolph: “Erica, you’re constantly taking credit for our projects! I’m sick and tired of you stealing the show! You’re selfish.”


Randolph: “Erica, I feel completely demotivated when I don’t receive any credit for the work I did. I’d really like if I could be given the recognition for projects I spend so much time and effort on.”

Rather than attacking the other party, an I-Statement allows the “offending party” to gather insight into the results of their actions. Furthermore, it becomes less confrontational. Instead, it’s about feeling empathy for one’s colleagues.

Or consider another method of framing that works for you. Another technique is to sandwich potentially negative critique between two positive statements. For example, it’s never a great idea to say “Liz, that spreadsheet I asked for looks terrible.” But sometimes, the point needs to be communicated. So try starting off softly, expressing your point clearly, then ending it on a positive note to maintain positive morale. Consider this instead: “Liz, I see you’re working on that spreadsheet I asked you for – thanks for taking the initiative and getting it back to me so quickly.

I am a little concerned about the appearance… It’s not quite on-brand, and I think we should polish it up just a bit more before we start implementing it in the presentation. I know you’re good at these things, so would that be possible to have done for Friday?”

Whatever kind of framing statement you decide to use within your organization, circulate it within your company and educate your employees on how it should be used. If everyone is speaking the same HR language, your employees will feel more confident speaking up about issues they have throughout the course of the work day.

Many accidents within the workplace could simply be avoided if your employees felt strong enough to speak up – both to you, and to one another. So as you encourage and implement a culture of “constructive disagreement,” be prepared for a rocky start as your staff starts to acclimate to these new expectations. However, remain gracious and calm throughout the adjustment period. Senior managers should stay sovereign as they work to lead their companies to new heights.

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