Why disagreement is a sign of a high performing team

My old boss, Nick, used to have a saying for anytime he came up with a new idea (which seemed like every day – he was an innovation freak).

“What’s wrong with my idea?” he’d ask us.

The first time I heard him say this, I nervously looked at my colleagues to see if it was one of those career limiting traps dressed up as a curious question. But they all enthusiastically jumped on the ‘diss the boss’ idea’ bandwagon. Instead of getting defensive when Nick heard the challenging feedback, he listened to it and remained enthusiastic and warm-hearted in his approach.

Sometimes, after a robust debate, the idea would still go ahead. But, we’d have adopted a far more vigorous decision-making process to get to that point.

Making it easy for people to challenge your ideas is fundamental to effective leadership. The best leaders make it both easy and safe for their team to challenge upwards, even if it’s tough on the ol’ ego.

[Tweet “Conflict is healthy, provided it’s focused on the issues – and not each other.”]

If your team seem reluctant to offer up conflicting opinions to yours, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I giving people enough opportunity to discuss their ideas with me?
  • How do I react when someone disagrees with me? Do I listen with an open mind or do I shut them down and act defensively?
  • How often do I change course after listening to another person’s viewpoint? Hint: if the answer is “hardly ever”, you’ve got a problem!
  • Am I exuding a ‘too tough for comment’ persona?

Here are some ways you can encourage varied viewpoints and spark healthy debate:

  1. Adopt a self-imposed ‘listen with an open mind’ mantra before you join any meeting. You could even put a reminder on your phone to make this intention more purposeful.
  2. Create processes in meetings which encourage divergent thinking, such as brainstorming or the WRAP decision making process from Chip and Dan Heath’s brilliant book, Decisive.
  3. Ask for other people’s opinions before offering your own. As the boss, people are hyper aware of positional power and are more likely to defer to the person in the room with the authority. Allowing others to go first with their opinion goes some way to counteract this.
  4. Regularly adopt questions which actively encourage debate, such as “if we were to play devil’s advocate to this idea, what would we say?” or “what are we missing?”

Gandhi said, “honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress” and I thank my old boss Nick for setting an example of this by openly asking ‘what’s wrong with my idea?’

1 Comment

  1. Clive Price on January 14, 2021 at 12:14 am

    I agree with “honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress”.
    But, recently we formed a new ‘Virtual Company” and after 6 months of robust ‘storming’, we are now back to negotiating issues, we resolved ages ago. So it is going around in circles as we are all too nice to each other.
    Bottom-Line is that firm Leadership is required with a clear direction that keeps the boat moving forwards.
    And sometimes, by exception, I suggest this may border on being ‘dictatorial’.
    This trait has its place in a Leader’s Toolkit.

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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