We need to get better at disagreeing at work

In these divisive times, employees need to learn to make the most of their differences for businesses to succeed, says John Cooper

We live in challenging times. Rather than coming together, it feels as if groups within society are diverging. Brexit, the environment, digitalisation and globalisation are all complex and divisive issues that present significant problems for society, organisations and individuals. 

On an individual level it can be tempting to avoid conversations that might lead to conflict, particularly in the workplace. Although maintaining harmony and the status quo feels safer in the short term, to survive and thrive in a constantly shifting environment, businesses and the individuals within them must become more comfortable with challenge, uncertainty and change.

Different opinions present an opportunity. A study published by Princeton University revealed that debating topics such as politics with our colleagues may actually be beneficial. That’s because arguing about a subject creates more diverse perspectives and “promotes searching wider spaces for solutions to problems”. 

However, for our differences to lead to positive outcomes, there must be psychological safety and respect. A survival climate of fear and mistrust will trigger the mirror neuron response. Teams repeat old patterns that have worked in the past to feel safe. It’s the opposite of agile. Individuals stop listening, stop learning and literally lose their IQ. Equally, being sabotaged by your own emotions and stuck in survival mode is incredibly stressful. 

Agree to disagree

It’s imperative for our collective health and business success that we get better at disagreeing. Emotional intelligence (EQ) is about how we manage our personality to best effect, and EQ is key to working with – and making the most of – our differences. Through developing EQ, it is possible to learn to adapt our attitudes and even our behaviours. And an understanding of EQ and the psychological and neurological processes involved is a good place to start.

We are bombarded with millions of stimuli every second of every day. In order to cope, these stimuli are pattern matched with our existing attitudes for example, ‘people won’t like me if I disagree’. If a serious threat is detected, our brain initiates a powerful emotional response. Which is fine if we are in real danger, but regular surges of cortisol, adrenaline and dopamine, and correspondingly low levels of serotonin and noradrenaline, will leave us feeling fearful, angry, sad or devalued.

Conscious choices

In turn, these feelings fuel our thinking, which then drives behaviour. In this way, a lot of automatic habitual behaviour is the consequence of an attitude or pattern match. While habits and routine responses free up the brain for conscious thinking, they can be destructive. And seeing a difference of opinion as a potential threat to be met with a fight, flight or freeze response is not uncommon.

The good news is that humans do have the capacity to be self-aware and make conscious choices. For example:

  • Replace negative attitudes about difficult conversations with positive ones; eg ‘people’s differences are valuable’.
  • Challenge negative thoughts or self-talk with positive affirmations; eg ‘what I think does matter’.
  • Take the time to consider your response before immediately disagreeing; eg ‘please give me a moment to think about that’.
  • Repeat these new habits and old patterns will reduce as new neural pathways are formed. 

Balance thinking and feeling

Too much emotion interferes with our capacity to problem solve, but operating on a purely rational level means we can fail to take others into account. Understanding the stages that influence behaviour shows us how the different aspects of EQ can be developed to achieve an appropriate balance between thinking and feeling. 

By developing our EQ it is possible to notice our attitudes, recognise our feelings and then change our behaviour. And by being more aware of what is going on with others, consciously selecting for difference and creating a new climate of respect becomes a virtuous circle. Because as humans, leaders and colleagues, it’s important to learn how to manage our unconscious thoughts and feelings so that we are able to work with our differences and all perform at our best.    

John Cooper is senior vice president at PSI Talent Management