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Why ‘agreeing to disagree’ is a bad management tactic

When you decide to play referee with your team’s disagreement, one of the worst things you can end the argument with is “agreeing to disagree.”

“Agreeing to disagree” is a tactic used by bosses when they want to compromise on conflict, afraid of upsetting their employees. Bosses who do this see themselves as neutral peacemakers. Instead of siding definitively with one side over another, they split their decision into two unappetizing slices with a non-committal answer. Everyone gets to go off the hook and continue thinking exactly as they had before the argument.

But a new argument by Ajay Shrivastava, chief product officer and chief technology officer at Knowlarity, finds this to be a more toxic approach to building productive teams.

He finds it solves nothing and creates more problems. “[Agreeing to disagree] often means trying to keep egos intact, even at the cost of what’s best for the company or team,” he writes. “What’s more, it preserves the status quo; even after everyone’s supposedly moved on, people will continue to try to convince one another of their own opposing views.”

Instead of ‘agreeing to disagree,’ try ‘disagree, then commit’

Being a good leader means learning to embrace tensions. The most productive teams are the ones that engage in healthy spars. One study found that teams that debated regularly had a 22% better shot at developing new ideas than yes-teams that always agreed.

When you are a good leader, you know that “agreeing to disagree” is not enough to move goals forward. You have to make hard choices and stick to them. To move past the wishy-washy answer of “agreeing to disagree,” you need to balance healthy debate with the knowledge that you are the final decision-maker. That way, your team can have ownership of an idea, while still understanding that they will have to be aligned with a common goal.

Shrivastava calls this healthier approach, “disagree, then commit.” “In cases when disagreements remain at the end of the debate–and chances are they will–leaders need to be tie-breakers, making a decision that aligns with the organization’s best interests, and framing their choice precisely that way,” Shrivastava writes. “They encourage feedback in private (not public) conversations and iterate as needed. But they don’t open up the floor to another team brainstorm midway through. At this stage, the leader is responsible to make sure progress is being made.”

To respect your employees’ time, a leader needs to make final decisions on how to act, with or without a desired consensus after a brainstorm. The commitment ultimately helps your team, even if it comes with bruised egos. Once your employees are aligned on a decision, you decrease the energy lost to infighting and brainstorming. Now, your team can focus on what matters — executing that decision into a reality.

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