Confrontation as a positive element in the company

A few years ago I shared this post in Spanish and I think it is still relevant today. That is why I want to share it again in its English version.

Since we were children we have been taught that arguing is not good and that it is better to get along. There is a saying that goes «a bad agreement is better than a long fight» and that is what we strive for when we argue with other people.

But it is something that is not right. Some time ago I wrote about the positive of having different opinions in a work team and generating debate around the strategies you want to develop. Teams that allow disagreement and discussion from the original or official idea are more likely to succeed than teams that simply follow a single-minded leader.

I have applied this point of view, I believe, since I was a child. I still remember one of my first jobs, when in a meeting with the top management of the company, the CFO stopped the meeting and said to me «Jaime, tell me what you are thinking because you won’t stop sit still and you are making me nervous». You can imagine that I almost had a heart attack. Suddenly the whole room turned to me wondering who this brat attending the meeting. There was a set of coincidences that led me to participate to provide support on a very specific topic that was to be discussed during the meeting, but my role was basically to stay quiet the whole time. So, all of a sudden, I became the center of attention of the entire board of directors and the top management of the company, who were looking at me anxiously to find out what was so important to stop the meeting.

I learned two things that day. The first is that many times what is logical and natural is not always the best option. There are many other factors that affect and interfere in the decisions that are made and the strategies that we develop in our businesses. The world is not perfect, so there are no black or white, good or bad decisions; there are a big range of combinations that make decision making more complex than you might initially expect. The second thing I learned that day was not to speak my mind. If you don’t share your opinion it will never be taken into account and you run the risk of being seen as just another element of the office decoration.

Sometimes this discordant approach made others think that I had a natural resistance to change. I have even been labeled as negative and unwilling to evolve. But people, as usual when making value judgments about the values and motivations of others, could not be more wrong. When in a meeting where we are working on different ideas and proposals for a strategy, I start asking questions and questioning the general approach, it is not because I disagree, but to ensure that we are taking into account all the parameters and possibilities, however remote they may be, so that our strategy does not have weak points where it can fail. And that is often difficult to understand.

When we launched the new Thermomix model I was asked to be part of the worldwide crisis group. This project was secret, because we wanted to launch the new Thermomix model globally, at the same time and it had to be a surprise for everyone. So we locked ourselves up a few times, several days in a room and we looked at all the options of what could go wrong, where the information could leak, what kind of information could leak and finally what the company could do to control it and stick to the plan.

In this case, critical thinking, confrontation and creating conflicts served us to achieve a strategy that allowed the project to be a success. Finally, after more than two years working on the launch of the new product, with more than two thousand people involved and countless agencies, we managed to contain any leaks or rumors that could have led us to disaster, without affecting sales in any country up to that date, which allowed us to achieve an incredible year in terms of results.

Points to take into account when promoting critical thinking

Coming back to the topic of seeking confrontation and not shying away from it in work environments. It is a positive tool if we know how to use it properly. It is not that we should just start arguing for the sake of arguing, without any real reason and without the least respect for our colleagues. Critical thinking and discussions in the work environment must follow certain rules.

The first is that our idea or point contributes somehow to the project, the strategy or the topic we are dealing with. There is no point in arguing for the sake of arguing, so if we do not have something to contribute to the discussion, it is better to keep our observations to ourselves.

The second is to be assertive and use active listening. We must understand what our partner is trying to expose, his or her motivations and the objective he or she is seeking, because only then can we begin to discuss a way forward. It is easy to start arguing because we are talking about such different things that at no point we are going to agree. Regarding active listening, it is important to give ourselves time to understand what the other person is saying. Many times we just wait until we can begin to present our counter-arguments at the slightest opportunity. We must pay attention to what we are being told and, if we can, repeat in the same words what we have just been told to make sure we have understood correctly. Only in this way can we be sure that we are talking about the same topic and that we are not debating impressions or assumptions about what the other person meant.

The third, and perhaps the most important, is respect. Arguing does not mean shouting or been disrespecful to each other. When we are passionate about a topic, it is easy for our tone of voice to rise and we start to argue loudly, but this is something we should avoided at all costs. If the discussion begins to raise the tone or starts to use unprofessional terms, it is better to stop, give it some time and resume when we have the right mood again.

Tu posición como pensador crítico en tu organización

During all these years throughout my professional career, I sometimes wondered what my bosses were thinking when I started to debate and discuss their decisions. More than once I thought I was going to be fired the very next day, but I have always keeped my job and I’ve been given new opportunities to develop. I must be a real pain in the ass. But I have always been for the good of the company or the project I have worked on. Of course, we must be clear that once we reach a strategy, with its good and bad things, discussions are over and we must support it with everything we have. Sometimes, even when we have a conflicting opinion with the final strategy adopted, we must support it because the final responsibility always falls on a single person, whether it is the boss, department director, CEO, etc… so someone has to make the decision in the end, and not everyone may agree. Expressing our point of view should not prevent us from rowing in the same direction as the whole team once that direction has been set. There are times when dissenting opinions can be expressed, and companies should encourage those times, but outside of those times we should all work as a team.

Finally, it only remains to say that companies should promote spaces and moments to generate debate, discuss and expose different points of view. The debate and confrontation of ideas and hypotheses is good to evolve as an organization and better face the challenges of the market. But this should also lead us to work on teamwork and collaboration values. We disagree to improve, but then we all work together to carry out the strategy that has been decided.

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