There Is No Commitment Without Disagreement
4 October, 2021
I was running a team of eight engineers more leaning towards R&D than production. Our project life cycle -- from idea inception to prototyping and proof of concept -- would usually take around two years. We were at a junction at that moment: we had just terminated one project, and the same team moved to work on an adjacent project.
As soon as we delved into this adjacent project, one of our best performers not only started to lag in performance but would go against the approved direction, dragging the whole team down with them. Their clout and high regard held by junior engineers, their behavior had severe consequences on the team’s progress.
We tried several things. I tried to get them to be engaged. I tried to encourage them to express their thoughts on where the project should be going. Nothing was coming out of it. It seemed that they had some preconceptions on the usefulness and viability of the new project. That obviously stalled them, which was in stark contrast to their previous stellar performance. Before this situation, they were exceedingly engaged, leading the whole team by example.
As I was not able to re-engage them, I decided to leave them out and concentrate on the rest of the team. That didn’t work either. The disengaged team member would still come to meetings, be assigned tasks, and then fail to execute on them. However, none of this was in vain. All of those failed attempts on our end helped us better understand what was going on. We got to learn how profoundly this person disagreed with the direction the team was made to take.
What worked -- as it turned out -- was having them express their disagreement in front of the team. I needed them to step back and articulate clearly why the direction we were taking was not right and then present their position in front of the team. I wanted them to initiate a discussion around what they thought would be the right direction and feel free to advocate for their point of view.
Disagree and commit is considered a given right that is often difficult to put into practice. We give a lot of weight to the commitment part, while often neglecting the disagreement part, which is equally important. By disagreeing, I mean putting that disagreement outside in the open -- letting a person who disagrees have their arguments in the open so that they can come back to it and feel comfortable saying “I told you so” if something wouldn’t work.
- Make it safe for your team members to express their disagreement. Incorporate that as a regular team practice, especially in the inception phases of a project. As a manager or tech lead, make sure no one feels threatened for speaking their mind. It’s easy to let a person slip behind or force them to do things a certain way. But there cannot be genuine commitment without an open disagreement.
- Our case involved a top performer and highly influential person, but it can be someone less vocal and confident. Your environment should be inviting for people who have less clout. Make sure that people know that they will be safe by expressing their opinion and should do so without any fear of retribution.
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