Use Disagreement between Leaders to Make Better Decisions!

by Ginny Trierweiler, Ph.D., the Mission-Based Leadership Coach

Have you ever been part of a leadership team in which the most aggressive individuals, or those most emotionally attached to a particular outcome, are able to drive most of the organization’s decisions and direction?  Maybe you sense that that doesn’t lead to the best decisions or the most coherent direction– but what’s the alternative?  You don’t want to encourage the team to battle everything to the death!  Many times, leaders may be relieved when people give in to the person who wants it the most.

Developing a constructive approach to disagreements can temper the influence of the most emotional and most aggressive leaders, while inviting more participation from the quieter, more thoughtful leaders. This is something bigger than conflict resolution skills. This is about your leadership team developing an agreed-upon approach for handling important disagreements.  When you can maximize the benefit of disagreements, you can:

  • Build a very high-functioning leadership team
  • Make the best decisions for the organization
  • Strengthen organizational functioning and
  • Maximize organizational impact

Develop an agreed-upon approach for handling important disagreements between organizational leaders:

Together, develop an approach for how to use disagreements between leaders to benefit the organization. Discuss your vision for disagreements, e.g. “We commit to maximizing the value of the leadership team, recognizing that our different perspectives add value.  We will lead best when we surface important disagreements in the most constructive way, openly listening to each other, and engaging in a thoughtful process to identify issues, reach the best decisions, and take the most constructive action to move our organization and our mission forward.”  Document the agreed-upon approach and use the document as an outline in meetings when dealing with a disagreement that is worth exploring.

When there is an important disagreement that seems likely to benefit from discussion and exploration, agree to follow certain steps.  Here are some recommended steps for disagreement that builds and strengthens rather than destroys:

  1. State the issues – as clearly as possible, with the intent to ensure that you understand the issues being considered before you begin “debating” the merits of each or rushing to a decision based on emotion. An example might be:some believe the organization’s top priority must be to provide direct services to people who need them most (A) and others believe the organization will not survive with that priority and, instead, must provide support and advocacy for those in greatest need while providing direct services to those who can afford to pay for them (B). Then check if the issues are indeed stated clearly and fully—is that a fair representation of each perspective?  Keep in mind that there may be more than two perspectives. 
  2. Open discussion– engage in an open process of discussion about the different ideas and perspectives. The intent is to achieve a more complete picture, with each person’s perspective adding value and building that picture. Assume everyone has valuable input.  Give full and open hearing to each other’s perspectives.  This will build the leadership team in terms of respectful relationships, expand perspectives, and make it more likely that the group will make the best decisions.
  3. Gather more information and meet again, as needed.  Identify whether more information is needed to evaluate different conclusions and, if so, agree to a process for gathering and reporting on the information.  For example, if one leader asserts that “we must do this to comply with the law,” but others don’t believe that’s true, information-gathering would include checking the law. After consideration of varied perspectives and after gathering information, meet again to discuss the issues and seek to achieve greater understanding of the issue.
  4. Agree to work together to make the best decision for the organization, based on the information and perspectives considered.  Are more questions arising that merit serious consideration?  Restate the issue that must be decided and discuss what new information could help to achieve greater understanding of the issue and resolve the questions.  If the discussion continues to be “stuck,” consider asking one or two members of the team who are more objective to facilitate the discussion or consider bringing in a skilled facilitator for complex discussions and decisions—to keep getting the group “unstuck.”
  5. Finally, agree to support group decisions. In order to be part of a dynamic, high performing leadership team, we must rise above the human tendency to be stuck in our own perspective.  When we are part of a leadership team that has engaged in a thoughtful process and arrived at a thoughtful decision, it’s our job to support that decision—even if it is not the decision we wanted.

When organizational leaders commit together to using disagreements in the most constructive way, and follow a discipline for doing so when important decisions must be made, they become a high performing leadership team and ensure that their organizations create great value.  And that’s worth the trouble!

 What approach do YOU use for maximizing the benefit of leadership disagreements?

If you are seeking to develop your skills in this area, I have a resource for you– an intensive workshop for managers and leaders  on Mastering Constructive Influence.  It will be May 22 and 23 in Denver– learn more at the video below and Register at!

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