How Leaders Can Learn How to Disagree Respectfully

How Leaders Can Learn How to Disagree Respectfully


“Society frowns at disagreeableness. As human beings we are hardwired to seek the approval of those around us. Yet a radical and transformative thought goes nowhere without the willingness to challenge convention.”

-Malcolm Gladwell

If everybody always agreed on everything, the world would be boring and progress would be stifled. 

Disagreements and compromise are natural parts of life, especially in the workplace. However, what sets good leaders apart from bad ones is their ability to recognize that disagreements are a catalyst for innovation. They must therefore strive to strike a delicate balance between expressing their ideas confidently while also maintaining good standing in their personal relationships with staff and peers.

When disagreements happen, particularly in a work environment, egos should be properly managed so emotions don’t get the best of those involved. For some, this is easier said than done. But it is nevertheless important to navigate disagreements in a respectful way so that productive discussions prevail and favorable outcomes are reached.

Here are some tips on how to disagree respectfully in the workplace.

1. Stick to the Facts

For favorable outcomes to be possible, all parties must engage in some level of compartmentalization to prioritize logic and facts over emotions. To prevent any hard feelings from being harbored, be sure to stick to the facts when presenting your side of the argument. It not only provides objectivity and presents your points coherently, it helps the other party see your point without being tainted by personal biases.

At the same time, avoid a my-way-or-the-highway mentality. Leaders need to set an example for their team, meaning they must remain level-headed, objective, and open to ideas. Failing to do so fosters a toxic workplace culture. Workplace disagreements, in particular, need to be settled amicably if long-term cooperation and organizational success is to be expected. Instead of being ego-driven, stress the point that your opinion or approach is not set in stone and that you are open to suggestions—you are simply opening up a dialogue to navigate the situation as effectively as possible.

2. Reiterate Shared Goals

When a disagreement occurs, it is because each party has their own idea regarding how to approach a problem. Confrontation can be uncomfortable, but the fact of the matter is both parties are probably trying to reach the same or similar outcomes but disagree on methodology. Stating this fact outright and reiterating common goals in a disagreement helps contextualize the issue at hand and provide an objective view of it. Once shared goals are established and agreed upon, each party will have an easier time working together to reverse engineer the most efficient way(s) to achieve them.

In the event that the parties do not share the same goals, it will be much harder to find common ground for cooperation. It may be better to agree to disagree and move on. Despite this being a less desirable outcome, knowing when to disengage is also a valuable skill in a leader’s repertoire.

3. Avoid Personal Qualms

You are disagreeing with an idea, not a person. 

Personal issues cannot seep into a healthy disagreement. The second either party resorts to personal attacks, the argument is already lost. It has devolved from a cooperative process to pettiness that only serves to hurt feelings and create an unproductive or even hostile atmosphere. 

In a disagreement, each party’s focus should be on articulating their position in an objective way, backed by evidence and experience — it has nothing to do with the other person. Here are some ways to avoid getting personal during a disagreement:

  • Don’t point out a person’s past mistakes
  • Avoid accusatory language
  • If problems have already risen, don’t assign blame; find a way forward
  • Don’t engage solely to poke holes in other ideas
  • Try to eliminate adjectives altogether so you avoid words like “naive” or “short-sighted”

4. Remain Calm and Listen

In a healthy disagreement, there will be give and take. Each party should have ample opportunity and time to present their thoughts cohesively without interruptions or hotheadedness. Take the time not only to hear them, but to listen to them. Here is an easy formula to show the other person that you are engaged with their thoughts and are able to push back without being disrespectful:

  1. Listen to what they have to say, without interruption.
  2. Remain calm the entire time
  3. Be conscious of your body language; don’t scoff, scowl, or smirk
  4. Reiterate their thoughts back to them to demonstrate that you understand them (“From what I’m hearing…”, “My understanding of your position is…”)
  5. Recognize their good ideas to show respect before launching a counterpoint
  6. Offer constructive criticism (“I like your thought process regarding xyz, but here’s why I don’t think that would work…”, “We must also factor in…”)

Speak in a calm, even tone that indicates to the other person that you are not emotional. Avoid condescension, name-calling, or sarcasm.

5. Pick Your Battles Wisely

Not everything has to be a disagreement. Oftentimes leaders do not see eye-to-eye with their team, but good ones know when to pick their battles. Leaders that take on every single little battle can be perceived as egomaniacs, difficult to work with, and closed minded. It perpetuates a toxic workplace culture in which employees feel they cannot speak up without being shot down. 

Teams that thrive have a free flow of ideas, both good and bad, and are able to bounce them off of their superiors without fear of reprimand.

Kirby Bates Knows Good Leadership

With over 30 years of experience in executive advisory services, executive search services, interim leadership services, and more in the healthcare space, we know the qualities that make a good healthcare leader. Quality leaders are equal parts strong in their convictions and vision but open minded and able to have their beliefs challenged in a respectful disagreement.

Kirby Bates has helped hundreds of healthcare organizations find the talented, experienced leadership that they need. To learn more about how we can help you find top-notch leadership talent, get in touch today!