Thursday, November 13, 2008 by Dave Blum
In Patrick Lencioni’s seminal book of team building ideas, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, the author talks about the need for team members to express disagreement openly and to engage, quite frequently, in a passionate debate of ideas.

  • Why is open disagreement necessary and why does it work?
  • Doesn’t such debate open the door to personal attacks and hurt feelings?

I’ve been thinking about these questions for awhile now.  In theory, Lencioni’s advice make a lot of sense.  The more people air their disagreements in meetings, the more each team member gets their feelings off their chest — and the less likely they are to grumble and conspire with each other at the water cooler.  I get that.  If you keep letting the air out of balloon, in a controlled environment, you have less chance of the balloon re-inflating, in private, to its full capacity and bursting.  The problem is, not everyone sees public debate and disagreement as a safe activity.  In the language of Myers-Briggs, on the one hand you have Thinkers, who see disagreement and dissent as a stimulating activity that gets you closer and closer to the “truth”. And on the other hand you have Feelers, who value harmony above all else and find debate to be almost physically uncomfortable, with its highly-charged, dangerous, un-harmonious emotions. Lencioni’s team prescription of public debate and disagreement leans too heavily, I think, towards the Thinkers, who might find such talk comfortable and enjoyable, while disregarding the emotions of the Feelers, who would surely prefer a softer, more consensus-driven approach to public conversation. The irony is that Feelers do need to let off steam.  They just need to do it in private, with assurance from people they can trust that ongoing relationships will not be adversely affected by their outburst.

The goal in the workplace is to make group decisions intelligently and rationally — and fact is, most of us do not have access to our full intelligence when we’re stirred up by strong emotions like disagreement, fear, concern, etc.  Expressing our strong swirl of emotions is a necessary mechanism for regaining our rationality, and hence making better decisions.  The skillful leader allows his team members to “discharge” their emotions in the setting that suits them best, whether it’s public or private.

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