In business, colleagues don’t always see eye-to-eye. Partners disagree with each other and with their employees. Employees disagree with each other and with their employers. No team is exempt from this, no matter how well they normally work together, and no matter how much is at stake. In fact, it’s just the opposite- the more passionate and committed the members of your team are, the more earnestly they’ll want to defend their position when it’s opposed.
As a leader, what should you do when someone disagrees with you, especially an equal partner or a trusted employee? How can you do what’s best for your business without sacrificing the good working relationships your business depends on? How can you help to mediate when members of your team are in a tiff?
It all comes down to reaffirming everyone’s commitment to the overall mission of your business. In a healthy business culture, where mutual respect is the expectation and everyone feels knows that their viewpoints are welcome and valued, it’s never impossible to resolve a dispute. It’s only a matter of having a process in place to determine the best way to go when the business is at a crossroads.
From experience, I’ve found that a few key steps can bring almost any disagreement to a fair resolution:
1. Know that disagreements are inevitable. This is the most proactive step you and the members of your team can take, from day one. To perceive disagreements as a crisis, or to be taken aback when they arise, is already adding a layer of angst and drama to the proceedings that’s completely unnecessary and counter-productive. Don’t fuel conflicts by enlarging them in your perception (and in everyone else’s).
In fact, disagreements are not only normal, they’re a healthy sign! People who are willing to argue for their point of view are people who care about what they’re doing. Employees who feel the need to advocate for their ideas in strong terms are employees who have clearly invested the kind of thought and passion into their work that makes them valuable. And when opposing viewpoints are talked through, analyzed, and dissected appropriately, they usually lead to growth on both sides of the argument- as well as valuable revelations for the business as a whole.
2. Step back and look at the big picture. When there’s a dispute over what the next move is, all parties should take the time to think about it in context. The context is your business’s overall mission, it’s raison d’etre. A disagreement is a good opportunity to revisit that. How would each possible course of action affect the business’s ability to achieve its main goal? This is why having a mission statement in the first place is a necessity, to act as a guidepost when the path isn’t completely clear.
Each person involved in the dispute should ask themselves “What is the purpose of this business? What are we trying to achieve here?” If one course of action brings everyone closer to the goal, then the right move is clear. If both parties think that their preferred course best serves the mission, then it’s time for further examination. In the end, no matter which side prevails, it’s important that everyone keep one larger truth in mind: that your relationship with each other is more important to the business than any single decision. Even if someone has to accept that their preferred course of action isn’t being taken, it doesn’t mean that they’ve “lost” the debate- it means that they’re professional enough to be supportive of their teammates even when they disagree.
3. Give everyone a voice. In a dispute, it’s vital for morale and for the work environment that everyone have a say. A good policy that I’ve found effective is to give each person involved 2 full minutes to state their case without interruption from anyone. It’s not a trial, and it’s not for cross-examination; it’s simply a way for each person to vocalize their position.
Doing so can often resolve the dispute on its own. There may be some point of clarification that, when understood, turns out not to be a point of contention after all. It may force someone who’s too bent on saying what they have to say to actually hear the other side. In some cases, a person who vocalizes (or even writes down) their rationale realizes a flaw in their own position, just by articulating it!
4. Have each side propose a way forward. Too often, disagreements devolve into a question of who’s right and who’s wrong. There is nothing productive in determining who “wins” a disagreement. A disagreement, handled professionally, is a discourse meant to determine what should be done, not a contest to elevate one person over another.
For example, say the person writing your blogs (normally considered to be competent, even witty, and- let’s be honest- downright handsome) has produced a post that’s well-written and informative, but strikes a tone you find inappropriate. Maybe it’s abrasive or condescending. Maybe it’s a great post, but it doesn’t speak with your business’s voice.
In a dispute, you would “win” if the post was scrapped. The writer would “win” if the post went up. In either case, someone walks away having asserted themselves, and someone walks away defeated. Neither is a resolution. Neither is productive, because no matter what effect the post will have, it’s damaged the dynamic.
Instead, if both parties can communicate effectively and respectfully, it might just be determined that some minor re-wording or adjustment in tone would make the post acceptable to all. You may learn to appreciate what goes into a good blog, or be convinced that a somewhat edgier tone could be a bold and positive decision. The writer may learn that he’s not just speaking for himself, but for the business, or admit that bad feelings over a personal situation have infected his writing. Whatever happens, by seeing a disagreement as an opportunity to evolve, and not a contest between combatants, you move towards the best outcome.
5. Bring in a third party. If the disagreement can’t seem to be resolved by the two sides alone, it may be best to consult someone outside the argument. The credibility of someone who’s respected by both sides, with no bias or anything to gain from any particular outcome, might be the first thing opponents agree on. By seeking an objective outside perspective, both sides may be alerted to things neither had considered, or simply be shown how their own biases have colored their understanding of the opposing view.
The third party doesn’t necessarily have to have the power to choose the course of action, but the perspective alone could radically alter the trajectory of the conversation- especially if it’s headed in an unpleasant direction.
6. Shelve it. As a last resort, if no resolution can be reached, it’s sometimes necessary to simply retire the argument- but not permanently. When a disagreement has reached such a pitch as to become detrimental, or the parties are at such an impasse that no solution seems visible, it may be time to put a pin in it. As long as there’s not a deadline or some required course of action, letting a dispute rest for a while can be very helpful.
Temporarily backing away from a dispute can give everyone involved the time needed to let the emotions fall away from it, ponder the different viewpoints, and align their argument with the overall goals of the business. Especially if people are becoming emotional or heated, the back burner can be the best option. This is not a failure to resolve the issue, so long as everyone remains committed to resolving it. Schedule a revisitation of the issue at an agreed-upon time, and simply try again later.
By taking these steps, you can resolve almost any disagreement that will come up in your business. Above all, never allow yourself to lash out, and always be honest with yourself in determining if your own ego is standing in the way of a solution. Disputes are uncomfortable for most non-sociopaths, so recognize that that discomfort breeds defensiveness, and be patient.
Commit yourself to resolving disputes with compassion and equanimity, and everyone in your business will see them as part of the process of succeeding together.