As a leadership keynote speaker, I spend a lot of time talking to audiences about how to most effectively navigate professional relationships. The fine art of business communication has a natural place in these discussions, as nobody enjoys a work environment rife with conflict—not the leaders, and certainly not the members of the support team.
But I think it’s important to mention that constructive disagreement is actually essential to a thriving business. Here are a few compelling arguments for the idea of argument, along with a few tips for creating reasonable guard rails to keep heated conversations on track.
Stigmatizing Breeds Simmering.
If the culture of your company doesn’t support the discussion of disagreement, how will your employees resolve conflict? What other forums do they have for their opinions to be heard? If my work as a leadership keynote speaker has taught me anything, it’s the importance of being able to answer these two questions.
Yes, disagreement is uncomfortable; we can all agree on that. But it’s also essential to any environment in which multiple personality types must constructively coexist…which is basically every business. It’s critical that leaders create a safe space within their company values for healthy conflict—and also that management carefully monitors this space to ensure that any such disagreements remain healthy.
Because here’s the ugly truth: If your team members don’t feel comfortable engaging in a dialogue that airs a variety of different opinions, they’re not likely to stick around. Your company infrastructure won’t be supported by the most effective problem-solving—and idea-generating—tool in the world.
Expectations Are Essential.
When it comes to professional disagreement, it’s easy to assume your entire team will already know the basic ground rules. We’re all grown-ups, right? People should, in theory, know how to express their disagreements within the limits of a professional environment. Sadly, I’ve found that each company can be like an island nation—with unique cultures and customs that might not translate to other organizations.
One woman I met during a leadership keynote speaker event told me about the mixed messages she received in her most recent role as a high-ranking executive for an entrepreneurial e-commerce company. When anyone disagreed with the CEO in a meeting, they would be subjected to public ridicule. When she disagreed with her boss, the subject was immediately dismissed. When she disagreed with an employee of equal standing, that employee would agree to her face, then complain directly to her boss via email.
Obviously, this was no-win situation—one from which my client wisely extricated herself. But my key take-away from this discussion was that we can’t make any assumptions about leadership style, even from our most senior employees. It’s critical that we set clear boundaries for what I call “conflict conduct,” in writing and widely publicized, along with consequences for breaking this particular kind of trust.
Empowerment Starts With You.
As demonstrated in the anecdote above, culture ultimately begins at the top. If my client’s CEO had set an example of collaborative discussion rather than harsh ridicule, the managers reporting to him might have found more constructive ways of dealing with disagreements within their own departments.
As a leader, once you’ve made it crystal clear that you have zero tolerance policy for a particular conflict behavior, whether it’s raised voices or passive aggression (equally harmful, in my opinion), your team will feel empowered to express their ideas and opinions—even when they differ from yours.