Learning & Development

Creating a Culture of Constructive Disagreement

While many organizations have at least one or two stereotypical aggressive, Type-A personalities who aren’t shy about sharing even their most controversial opinions, most people tend to be a bit more reserved. This is especially true in a corporate setting, where norms of etiquette, professionalism, and hierarchy often stifle potential disagreements.

Junior Team Members Defer to Their Superiors

For example, junior team members might refrain from challenging a superior’s assumptions for fear of being seen as disrespectful or insubordinate or simply because they assume their boss is correct. Similarly, it can feel rude or distasteful to challenge a colleague’s firmly held belief, even when one is confident that belief is misplaced.

There’s certainly something to be said for avoiding toxic conflicts and respecting the reporting chain, but constructive disagreements are often the unfortunate casualties of cultures that, either intentionally or inadvertently, discourage conflict and disagreement.

The Power of Constructive Disagreement

In order to facilitate constructive disagreement, an organization must create an environment where staff aren’t afraid to disagree. This means staff aren’t immediately shut down for exploring a contrary position and feel empowered to disagree with superiors.

“It can be hard to approach controversial conversations not knowing the outcome or all the right things to say,” writes Mario Ciabarra in an article for Entrepreneur. “It’s important to remember that part of the process is messing up, saying the wrong thing, apologizing and learning how to do better. In a polarized world where people with one political viewpoint or another are only consuming information from sources that validate their opinions, responsible leaders can open up new spaces for more authentic conversation.”

At first glance, it might seem like encouraging disagreements could create a disrespectful or toxic workplace, but this incorrectly assumes that disagreements are inherently disrespectful or toxic. The key to encouraging constructive disagreements is to combine support for disagreement with professional respect and etiquette.

Lin Grensing-Pophal is a Contributing Editor at HR Daily Advisor.