The Art of Constructive Disagreement

Written by on August 14, 2015 in Board Effectiveness with 3 Comments

Black and white photo of workers taking a lunch break on a steel beam high above a cityThe Why and How of Disagreeing Well

Do you know how to disagree without disrespect?  Do you know how to say, We’ve come to different conclusions, but I understand your way of looking at this?  That’s how we create an outcome that’s better than either of us came up with alone.  That’s constructive disagreement.

Years ago, a consultant to a company I worked in pointed out a flaw in how the management team functioned.  We didn’t have a way of saying “I disagree with you” without trashing the other person’s opinions, expertise or understanding.  That was destructive disagreement, and we all see plenty of it.  It doesn’t take us forward, does it?

So how to disagree well?  We mostly don’t get much training in this, but it’s one of the core make-or-break skills of effective board work.  It’s been said, with justice, that if you and I agree on everything, one of us is redundant.  On the other hand, if we can’t land on a conclusion we can both live with, we are gridlocked.  A board’s job is to make clear decisions, and a board’s decisions are binding on each and every member.  Therefore, the art is to use disagreement constructively, to create the best answer we can in the circumstances.  We need this skill to navigate the fine line between groupthink and paralysis.

There are paradoxes to face here.  If we start by agreeing on everything, or by thinking we ought to, chances are we won’t find a solution that’s better than the one we started with.  So we’ve wasted our time.  If we start by thinking that every proposal has to be tested in the fire of vigorous opposition, the “devil’s advocate” compulsion, we’ll take too long to arrive at a decision.  So we’ve wasted our opportunity.

And if we start, as so many of us do, with a fight-or-flight reaction to disagreement, we won’t listen constructively to an opposing point of view.  We’ll have so much emotion invested in being right, or rather not being wrong, that winning the argument will become more important than getting the best possible answer.  (By the way, our education should likely own up to some responsibility here.  Most of us were put on the spot so many times to produce the right answer, that there’s still a deep sense of threat about the possibility of being wrong.)

Yep, constructive disagreement is scary; it takes courage, skill and practice.  First it takes the courage and effort to form a considered view of our own, not deferring to authority or precedent, and also knowing that the best thing in the end may be to abandon this view of ours.  Then it takes the agility to distance ourselves from our own view, so that we are not so personally invested in it that we defend it at any cost, while still explaining its merits.  Then it takes skilful dialogue to truly hear a different view, on its own merits.  And finally it takes the openness to accept the best decision the group can come to at the time, knowing how fallible we all are and how quickly the ground can shift under us.

Whew.  That’s hard, isn’t it?  That’s constructive disagreement.

But we know that good board work needs a diversity of outlooks and opinions, and that a board has to land on a consensus without spending too much time agonising over it.  Being good at constructive disagreement is the way to bring this off.

Welcome to the challenges of directorship.


Incidentally, you sometimes come across board development programs that speak of “teamwork” and making the board a high-performing team.  Well, I hope it’s clear that is potentially a misleading way to think of board work.  The first habit of good directors is the habit of making well-informed individual judgements.   And the second is the habit of listening carefully and positively, with an open mind, to the differing views of colleagues.  Then comes the work of thrashing out an acceptable outcome.  Teamwork doesn’t seem to me the right word for all this.


Here’s my Board Bloke Blog on one of the pathologies of board debate: The Perils of Groupthink.

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  1. Rod says:

    Well put Iain, the fight or flight is classic and needs good chairing both in the meeting and to retain the high value of strategic diversity so essential to avoid stagnancy and promote constructive disruptive change.

  2. Iain says:

    Thank you, Rod. You are right, good chairing is vital, and so is a healthy diversity of outlook.

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