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Agree to Disagree

Do you know someone that disagrees with everything you or anyone else says? Some people are pathologically wired to push back. It makes no difference if it’s on a subject they know nothing about, they’re operating assumption is that everyone, and I mean everyone, is lying to them or has an ax to grind or is flat out stupid.

What do you do with such folk?

Promote them.

Invite them to every meeting. Keep them at all costs; these are the folks—and this is the type of thinking—that will make you better.

We’re not Leaving

I once worked for a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force who was our unit’s Director of Operations (DO). The DO in a unit is the chief operating officer, the one who ensures the unit accomplishes its mission. It is his hind end that’s on the line when things go south.

In his daily staff meeting, this particular DO would not make a decision until someone disagreed with him. He would say something like this: “If this is a dumb idea, I am going to look bad and will be very upset with the people in this room. So we’re not leaving until someone disagrees with me.” An awkward silence would ensue until someone timidly offered up some criticism. Then someone else. Soon there would be a full-blown, pros and cons discussion on the issue. Then the DO would decide. Many times he would stick with the original plan, but now he knew a couple of things. He knew how his staff really felt about the issue. And he also knew more ways that things could go wrong and how to mitigate the damage if it did.

This worked because the boss encouraged critical thinking and was not threatened by criticism.

The Science is So Sound

We want people to like us. We avoid conflict and disagreement. And sometimes we’re threatened by contrary opinions. It’s not intuitive, but we need people in our lives who disagree with us. What we need in many cases is that dissenting voice.

There are a couple of reasons this is a good thing

First of all, and maybe most obviously, is that if you and I agree on everything, one of us isn’t necessary. I mean, seriously. What’s the point?

Criticism helps us to improve our understanding. It forces us to confront ideas and concerns that never occur to us. It exposes our hidden assumptions and presuppositions.

Criticism also improves our creativity, especially if we are the critic in the scenario. Accordingly, Psychiatry Professor Robert Bilder says, “Be willing to be disagreeable. There is a negative correlation between the level of creativity and ‘agreeableness,’ so those who are the most disagreeable tend to be the most creative.” (Quoted by Barbara Oakley on page 50 of A Mind For Numbers.)

Finally, criticism can help the group be more productive. Barbara Oakley, creator of the massively popular Learning How To Learn Coursera course says this: “Those you study with should have, at least on occasion, an aggressively critical edge to them. Research on creativity in teams has shown that nonjudgmental, agreeable interactions are less productive than sessions where criticism is accepted and even solicited as part of the game.” A Mind for Numbers, pp. 236-7.

You Cannot Be Serious

Are you seriously suggesting, Ken, that we are better when we have naysaying, captious, negative people on board that oppose everything we want to do and have nary a good word to say about anyone?

As appealing as that sounds, no, that’s not what I’m saying. There’s a difference between being predisposed to push back because you are by nature skeptical and questioning, and being disagreeable because you have an ax to grind, you have serious personal or emotional issues, or you’re just a terrible person. Toxic people are normally intentionally toxic and are much to be avoided.

Beware of Toxic Agreement

What we don’t often think about is that “yes persons,” sycophantic yeasayers, can be toxic as well. If you are standing there naked while everyone around you fawns over your beautiful clothing (as in The Emperor’s New Clothes), you are a little, um, exposed. As a leader in this situation, you aren’t able to distinguish fantasy from reality. This is the very definition of a Fool’s Paradise. And it is precisely the situation my DO sought to avoid. And we would do well to avoid it too.

Ergo, don’t be afraid of pushback.

And don’t be afraid to push back. If you are an agreeable sort, then try a little disagreement on for size. A little skepticism can be a healthy thing!

Who knows? It might get your promoted!

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