15 Oct 2020 16:45 IST

To disagree without being disagreeable

Dr Anthony Fauci disagreed with President Donald Trump on the Covid-19 pandemic   -  REUTERS

In business communication, it’s not what we say but how we say it, which matters the most

The US debate season has arrived in full swing and everyone tunes in to watch two adults argue. They don’t realise that in India we do that every day and have turned it into the longest running reality show in the world — whether it’s TV anchors and their panellists shouting over each other, social media trolls spitting their anonymous fury on anybody who dares step out of line, or cases filed and investigative agencies unleashed to quickly muzzle those who attempt to step out of the shadows. The business world has not been insulated.

An Indian MNC automotive major had a senior management person call out the unwelcoming message of the tax regime. Quickly his senior colleague had to step in to ‘clarify’ lest the company upset the powers that be and hold the company to account for the ‘errant’ executive’s gall to disagree with the government wisdom. To handle disagreement, even welcome it seems to have all but disappeared. On the flip side, to disagree agreeably seems to have become a lost art. As business leaders we may have to disagree almost every day — with a colleague, a client, a partner, a co-founder, a supplier — but how do we do this right?

Learn to listen

Most disagreements spiral out of control because we fail to listen. Both to what is being said and what is unsaid. A colleague may be vehemently disagreeing with the idea you just brought up. But if only you listen carefully to what he’s not saying, to his tone, to his body language, you may realise that he’s just hurt that you let him down by not pushing his promotion as vigorously as he’d hoped. So instead of the disagreement becoming a false debate about your idea, you realise that you need to assuage a hurt feeling, a loss of trust.

That will create a completely different response than going hammer and tongs defending your idea. Maybe a colleague gets all disagreeable about a new proposal that has come up, but he’s really just upset that you missed keeping him in the loop and hurt his sense of importance. The better we listen when a disagreement comes up, we can better decipher what is really at stake. There’s the obvious issue and there’s possibly a whole set of real issues below the surface. That’s what needs to be dealt with. That takes courage, takes openness, takes humility and takes time. It can’t be handled in the rat-a-tat frenzy of a violent argument.

I remember having a disagreement with my boss when he sided with the business bevelopment head to go ahead with a big deal. I felt the pricing was wrong, the risks were too high, that we would lose money and that the deal was a bad deal. Instead of brushing me off, my boss — many years more experienced than I was — listened, asked me to list my reasons and after taking time to consider the pros and cons, he did finally go ahead with the deal. Even though he’d done the opposite of what I’d recommended, I respected his willingness to listen, his willingness to evaluate patiently and I learnt from his example.

Keep the ego aside

Disagreements that move from PG-13 to the R zone are the ones where the ego gets involved. The disagreements that brought the Ranbaxy brothers down is an example. Remember Prince Alwaleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia suing Forbes because they ‘underestimated his wealth’ in their billionaires listing!! The ego is the most dangerous party in a disagreement. It can blind us to reality, distort our perceptions of the discussion, demonise the person we are disagreeing with, and cause us to say or do things that are plain wrong or disproportionate to the issue being debated. I saw an example of this in action when a then colleague who had just announced his resignation to join the client he had served, was still serving his notice period and still conducting negotiations. On the back of a disagreement, he was accused by his boss of having already switched loyalties. It was a baseless, unfair, and hurtful accusation, and I had to step in to get the boss to back off.

When I defend ‘my idea’ the ‘my’ in that is the most dangerous element. It is what causes the heated emotions, the defensiveness, the blindness to a counter view. I view anyone’s disagreement as a personal attack. My ego instigates me to push back because our egos thrive on playing victim, on having an ‘enemy.’ Without an ‘against’ or an ‘other’ — our ego fades into impotence. That is the best weapon against our egos — just seeing it for what it is. So, before we jump in to disagree let’s first ask — is that my ego disagreeing or is it something I genuinely disagree with?

Think of the big picture

Identify battles from war. Some arguments are not worth winning because they are about something small and petty. They are only about scoring points. The leader needs to immediately step back, see the bigger picture and give in if necessary. There are other disagreements where something bigger is at stake — an important conviction, a deeply believed principle, a noble ideal. There the leader has to be able to see the bigger picture and stand firm. It was so disappointing to see one of the country’s largest business names buckle under pressure when, what many called one of the best ads of 2020 was brutally trolled.

A higher principle was at stake and it was really the time for the leader and his team to stand up and be counted for doing the right thing. Unfortunately, a combination of fear and the expedience of business reality caused what can only be called a failure of leadership — hopefully momentary. As one of the high decibel panellists declared when discussing the company — “they should make practical ads.” Jeff Bezos’ famous submission to his team that he chose to ‘disagree and commit’ about an important decision exemplifies the spirit of looking past the petty details and seeing the big picture. Dr Faucci disagreeing with President Trump on Covid and its implications in his courteous, gentlemanly and fact-driven way is an example of seeing the big picture and disagreeing but in an agreeable way.

Disagreements are an absolute must in business. Without them crazy ideas would become reality, good people would be lost, and stupid sums of money wasted. Part of a leader’s role is to encourage a culture that encourages honest disagreement especially to those higher up in the hierarchy. The tragedy of a leadership team would be for it to become an echo chamber of the boss’ views. But when we disagree, we can do so agreeably without vilifying, without making it personal and keeping our eyes firmly on what’s best for the organisation.

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