Three Keys to Successful Disagreements at Work

November 14, 2023

Julie Luby

Ed.D. in Leadership

The idea that conflict and disagreement are synonymous is a common misconception. If you look them both up, you’ll find that while there is some overlap, conflict is associated with terms like quarrel, argument and hostility. Disagreement is described as a difference of opinion or lack of consensus. Recognizing the differences between the two — and the reasons why one is more powerful and effective than the other — is essential to successfully navigating disagreements in the workplace.

Intellectual debate in an environment of trust can lead to new and creative ideas, as well as to collaborative efforts and goals. Conflict on the other hand will always be a losing proposition. While this applies in professional relationships, it’s even more important in relationships between leaders and their teams. Good leaders know that supportive, respectful relationships are the key to success. Having differences of opinions will and should happen; it’s a sign of engagement and concern. So, how do skilled communicators use differences of opinion as a positive lever for growth instead of a relationship killer?

  • Decide if and when.

Before sharing your difference of opinion, successful folks ask themselves two important questions: “Does this really matter?” and “Is this the time and place to have this conversation?”

For the question of if something really matters, it’s important to realize that we all have different styles and approaches to things, and different doesn’t always mean one way is better than another. If the outcome is either unimportant or low impact, then leave this one alone. Save your disagreements for issues of genuine substance. As for time and place, disagreements are best conducted privately. If others are present or nearby, it will almost certainly affect the outcome of the conversation. The presence of others may cause awkwardness and concern about perception. You don’t need to add this pressure to the situation.

If you’ve decided that a particular difference of opinion is important and you’re in a private spot, then you’re poised to successfully have a disagreement without it becoming conflict.

  • Adopt a genuinely curious and open mindset.

Understanding that relationships usually outlast the impact of decisions is non-negotiable. “Winning” is actually losing. When you simply overrule someone on something meaningful to them, you’ve won the proverbial battle, but have likely begun to lose the relationship. By simply overruling someone, you’re communicating that you don’t value them or their opinion.

Successful people also know that their current thinking on a subject can be changed and improved if they’re genuinely open to listening to and learning from others. They know that successful leaders truly value and use the input of their team, as opposed to strictly authoritative leaders who do not inspire a team’s commitment or value their ideas and opinions.

  • Check yourself.

Successfully discussing a difference of opinion requires self-awareness. Most importantly, if you’ve adopted the mindset above, then it should naturally follow that you will be listening to understand, not waiting for your turn to speak. This is a critical difference. It’s important to recognize how your emotions can interfere with your intention to disagree rather than quarrel. Be aware of your tone, volume, body language and facial expressions. Again, if your mindset is open and collaborative, then disagreements should feel like planning meetings, not arguments. Your participation should reflect excitement, enthusiasm and appreciation — not hostility.

With attention to these three keys, you will create a team that is engaged, forthcoming and onboard — and most importantly — willing to share ideas and opinions for the greater good.

Learn key skills on how to become the leader you want to be with the leadership programs at American College of Education.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of American College of Education.
Julie Luby
Julie Luby, Ed.D. in Leadership

Julie is an assistant superintendent of schools in a public preK-12 school district in Connecticut. She has been an educator for more than 30 years, having taught a wide range of subjects across almost all of the grades and been a building principal at the elementary, intermediate and high school levels. She recently earned her Ed.D. in Leadership from ACE. Julie's research and experience have cultivated her passionate belief in district coherence around a shared vision that is celebrated and enacted through skilled instructional leadership. She provides coaching to principals and district leaders, and leads coherence work for districts seeking to enhance performance. Julie lives in Newtown, Connecticut with her three children and two dogs.

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