Managing constructive disagreement

I am a big fan of constructive disagreement as you may have noted from a previous entry Working with sceptics to new practices.

To understand why you need to see how we usually consume information. For example, if you come across the statement:

Alcohol boils at 82C

What is the chance that you will stop whatever you are doing and confirm this fact?

Now imagine if you were in the middle of an argument with someone about which temperature to set your distiller, they say 78C you say 82C. Now, what is the chance you will actually take the time to research on this piece of data?

You see, arguments help us kick in our reasoning, Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber in their paper Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory state:

Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. Reasoning so conceived is adaptive given the exceptional dependence of humans on communication and their vulnerability to misinformation.

Now obviously being in the middle of a disagreement is no fun, in this entry, we will be looking at what I think are some good practices to manage profitable disagreements.

What is the history of the team

Every team has a history. Sometimes you find yourself in a situation where some members of the team have nothing but vile for their colleagues. You can usually tell by the thinly veiled contempt remarks being thrown around.

In this kind of situation, no argument is worth even pursuing, your focus at this point in time should be in fixing the broken relationship.

It is no use trying to establish who is right, simply focus on forgiveness and the need to cooperate before anything meaningful can be done.

Keep calm

People generally have two natural conflict management strategies. One camp can be described as conflict seekers the other as avoiders.

The seekers have no qualms about speaking out their minds while avoiders will seek to preserve the relationship.

Personally, I am an avoider, I prefer it when everything is going smoothly and see no need for an argument for arguments sake. Yet I understand always avoiding conflict is the route to becoming a doormat.

It is imperative you understand your own disposition as well as your team members’. In this way, you can manage unproductive behaviors when they rear their ugly heads.

From seekers you can expect:

  • Public ridicule or insult of the other party
  • Shouting over the other decisions
  • Strong arming

From the avoiders you can expect:

  • Storming out of the meeting
  • Agreement without commitment (worse than disagreement)
  • Disengagement

Furthermore, don’t let yourself get lost to anger. Yes, it usually gets everyone in tow but at the cost of psychological safety.

Have some ground rules

You can not manage disagreement by fiat. Even if you get everyone to agree with you, what you now have is compliance not commitment. Even worse, you can find yourself dealing with a full blown mutiny.

Most developers are already sticklers for doing things right. Thus when there is a point to be made, avoid mystique about where you are coming from.

Focus on the process of arriving at decisions rather than the decisions. There is a reason rule of the law works better than the wisest of kings

Some sensible ground rules would be:

  • Don’t interrupt a speaker
  • Don’t use the phone or laptop as the other person is speaking
  • Always respect meeting times

Maintain participation

A disengaged individual literally sucks the energy out of the group. It is simply more effective to have the person not in the room at all.

I find one of the greatest joys in this world is intellectual communion with peers on matters of substance. I believe as long as you keep the conversation meaningful, there will be participation.

With that said, some people just don’t do well in big groups. In particular, you may end up with a situation where only the ideas from extroverts are brought to the fore and argued out.

To bring in the more silent introverts, you may need a different form of participation, say by having people either split up into small groups of two or three to discuss or write out their opinion on a piece of paper and send it to the front.

How do you deal with disagreement within your own teams? Talk to me in the comment section below or on my twitter @jchex

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Published by

jchencha

API Engineer