When you go into work, is it very quiet, like a library, with everyone getting on with their own work? Do you hear chit chat about children or holiday adventures? Is there good natured and erudite discussion of work or of politics or cultural issues? Or do you hear people raising their voices in anger, as if they are in an episode of East Enders? Is swearing and exasperation the order of the day? You can tell lots about organisations by listening.
Like individuals who either want to talk things through, enjoy a good barney or keep themselves to themselves, all organisations have a culture for dealing with dissent and disagreement. What about yours?
Many organisations fear discontent and disagreement, and find ways to rule “out of order” views which challenge the received wisdom. For example, they might discourage staff engagement or employ consultants or reputation analysts who tell them that all is good, inside and out. The senior team is never challenged and if there are ‘engagement’ sessions, staff say very little at them. In these sorts of organisations, you might hear managers saying things like – “we tried to get a staff forum together, but no one was interested”.
All organisations and teams face disagreement and organisations use a range of ways to deal with it. Maybe you recognise some of these responses:
- One person gets their own way. Usually this becomes a pattern. The stronger person (not in a good way) always wins and his or her adversary gives up.
- Nothing gets resolved. The conflict just continues to surface in different forms. This can take the form of a one on one row that everyone else ignores or feels embarrassed about, or it can be a simmering, supressed dislike that everyone just takes for granted.
- Or, ideally the issue gets resolved. This is usually by some sort of compromise. The pair either resolve it themselves by at least one being conciliatory, or the team or manager work together with the disagreeing couple to find a way through. Even if the protagonists are not entirely happy they usually will accept a mediated solution.
So come into my team and I will try to explain how we make difficult decisions.
- We look for disagreement. We seek out the contrary view. Most of our bad decisions have happened when we collude in one version of reality. We believe we know best in how to organise an office move, and then when we do it without sufficient consultation we upset everyone. What we are suffering from is “group think”. Effectively one opinion takes hold and it seems correct to everyone, but it turns out not to be correct and the whole strategy is undermined.
- Sometimes our senior team receives a paper asking for agreement to something that everyone sees as a “no brainer”, or a totally uncontentious decision. These decisions are best dealt with by the colleague who instigated the paper –don't need to use your top team or manager where the course of action is the obvious and best solution. Where possible avoid these coming to your top team, asking for an imprint of the rubber stamp.
- We seek the range of views from around the table and beyond. Everyone has their own opinion, but what about the staff they work with? What does the frontline team or the union or the customer panel or the law or the government or the regulations say about this?
- What is the expert view? Often this has extra weight. The issue of cladding is high on our agenda at the moment. We are trying to decide what to do in the context that none of us are cladding experts. So, we need expert advice – although sometimes the experts disagree too.
- Who in the team owns this issue? Their voice will usually have greater significance because we respect their greater understanding of the issues. We listen carefully to understand their point and offer our own experience, feelings or perspectives in the light of their position.
- When an issue is contentious, we try to comment in a neutral and measured way so that we don’t add fuel to the fire. We note what has been said, showing we have heard the two sides.
- After a reasonable period, assuming I am chairing, I will usually draw the discussion to a close, using my own judgement in terms of what I think is the best decision, in the round, for the company. Everyone else on my team has responsibility for part of the business, whereas my job is to protect and preserve the business as a whole. This gives me the authority to make a judgement at the end of the day. It is not always easy, but I try to be just, empowering and wise.
How do you deal with disagreements in your organisation? What do you find works well – or not so well?