When Leadership Teams Disagree

By Cal Zant
August 6, 2019

Adapted from excerpts by Patrick Lencioni

Being unified is more important than being right. – Cal Zant

Those unwilling to change their mind will never change anything. – George Bernard Shaw


Contrary to popular belief, the most successful teams are not the ones in which team members always agree with one another. Instead they are often characterized by healthy debate – and at times, heated arguments. But the debate doesn’t cause them to fragment, it actually causes them to gain strength and develop cohesion.

One reason that great teams are able to grow through conflict is because they have laser-like focus on results. They seek evidence and data and try to remain as objective as possible. As a result, while people may have different views, they are united in seeking the truth.

Team members can argue, but in the end, they are on the same side. In sharp contrast, failing teams tend to personalize disagreement or question motives, which creates territorial divides that continue to grow.

Jim Collins said that Phillip Morris had this culture, and it was what made them a great company. A Phillip Morris executive said, “No matter how much they argued, they were always in search of the best answer. In the end, everybody stood behind the decision. All of the debates were for the common good of the company, not your own interests.”

The reason conflict is so important is that a team cannot achieve commitment without it. People will not commit to a decision if they have not had the opportunity to provide input, ask questions, and understand the rationale behind it.


If people don’t weigh in, they can’t buy in.


However, this shouldn’t be misinterpreted as an argument for consensus. Great teams avoid the consensus trap by embracing a concept Intel calls “disagree and commit.”

Basically, they believe that even when people can’t come to an agreement around an issue, they must leave the room unambiguously committed to a common course of action. Most who hear about this philosophy are immediately convinced that it is something they want, but they need to remember that it requires a willingness on the part of the leader to invite the discomfort of conflict. After all, the principle of disagree and commit can’t happen without the disagree part.

See, it’s only when colleagues speak up and put their opinions on the table, without holding back, that the leader can confidently fill one of their most important responsibilities: breaking ties. When a leader knows that everyone on the team has weighed in and provided every possible perspective needed for a fully informed decision, they can then bring a discussion to a clear and unambiguous close and expect team members to rally around the final decision even if they initially disagreed with it.

Some leaders feel that if they entertain disagreement, they’ll be less likely to gain commitment from everyone. The truth is, very few people in the world are incapable of supporting a decision merely because they had a different idea. Most people are generally reasonable and can rally around an idea that wasn’t their own as long as they know they’ve had a chance to weigh in. When there has been no conflict and when different opinions have not been aired and debated, it becomes virtually impossible for team members to commit to a decision, at least not actively.

When people leave a meeting without active commitment around a decision, they don’t go back to their offices and design a plan to sabotage the idea. That only happens on TV and movies, but what happens in real life is far more boring – and more dangerous.

Most leaders have learned the art of passive disagreement: going to the meeting, smiling and nodding their heads when a decision is made that they don’t agree with. They then go back to their offices and do as little as possible to support the idea. They don’t promote it on their own team, and they certainly aren’t willing to run out onto the tracks waving their arms to prevent a train wreck.

Instead, they sit back, and watch problems develop, quietly looking forward to the day when things go badly and they can say, “Well, I never really liked that idea in the first place.” The impact of this is often embarrassing and costly for the organization.

The only way to prevent passive sabotage is for leaders to demand conflict from their team members and to let them know that they are going to be held accountable for doing whatever the team ultimately decides.

One team we worked with had a long, drawn-out debate over whether they should invest in a major new idea. After months of intense discussion, it would have been easy for John, who technically “lost” the argument, to sit back and sulk after the decision was made.

Yet the exact opposite occurred. Like other great team members that we have studied, John got over the debate quickly and asked, “What resources do you need from me to make this work?” Once a decision is made, members of great teams rally around to help one another (and the organization) succeed.


Rules of Engagement

One of our consultants worked with a leadership team in a division of a large beverage company. He convinced the VP of that division, that more conflict was necessary on the team. Unfortunately, they were having a hard time getting people to engage in it. This is typical.

So, the VP put in place two formal rules.

First, if people remained silent during discussions, he would interpret that as disagreement. People quickly realized that if they didn’t weigh in, a decision could not be made. Second, at the end of every discussion, the VP would go around the room and ask every member of his team for a formal commitment to the decision.

These simple rules changed the nature of their meetings and increased the healthy conflict almost immediately. This would not have happened had the VP simply told his team that they should engage in more conflict. It’s important to remember that a reluctance to engage in conflict often goes back to a lack of trust.

If team members aren’t comfortable being vulnerable, they aren’t going to feel safe engaging in conflict. Trust must be established if real conflict is to occur.

In the same way that trust enables conflict, conflict is what enables active and clear commitment. There are no shortcuts.

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