The diplomatic leader: How to agree to disagree

There’s a myth that disagreements are to be avoided at all costs. As business consultant Alexandra Tselios explains, if you avoid them entirely, you may never achieve truly effective business outcomes

One of the biggest misconceptions that is detrimental to our society, in my opinion, is that a disagreement has a negative connotation.
Too often, I hear people describing a discussion they had at work that was regarded as a disagreement, and they are upset and disillusioned by the event. Quite simply, a healthy team in a company moving forward is going to face disagreements. It is the only way conversations will be effective, outcomes can be achieved, and targets can be met.
Beware a leader who avoids conflict, or any sort of disagreement, because the most effective leaders are the ones who are able to agree to disagree diplomatically.
Basic leadership communication skills suggest that a productive conversation has the ability to compare perspectives and make a decision. But what happens if a conversation becomes emotional, or worse, an all-out argument?
The key is to have the ability to separate yourself and look at the situation from a holistic point of view. How has this conversation derailed? What are all participants trying to achieve? Part of leading effectively is to have the ability to identify strengths in others that you lack, and navigate social nuances.
One particular type of person that senior managers often surround themselves with is the ‘Yes Man.’ This person consistently pats their manager on the back, never questions any decisions and generally flees when their CEO faces a huge legal dispute or failure. While these Yes Men can be fantastic motivators when the chips are down, their inability to provide an alternate opinion is ultimately their downfall. It’s crucial to feel a sense of team unity and have a defined goal, but it’s equally important for a manager to encourage diplomatic disagreements with effective outcomes, something that’s not possible with a Yes Man.
A business is built on its employees, and every staff member is selected for their specialist skill set and experience. A diplomatic leader is one who considers a variety of different perspectives and analyzes this information when making their final decision. Understanding how the delivery of information can impact those around you is crucial to ensuring that a disagreement doesn’t result in a negative blow to productivity. Who wants to deal with a situation where the guy from accounts refuses to speak to the guy from sales, over a conflict that wasn’t even personal? Sometimes you can’t influence office politics, and people won’t always get along, but how that affects a discussion is up to the diplomatic leader. The crux of disagreeing effectively is ensuring that all participants in a discussion feel as though they have been understood and validated, even if their suggestions aren’t adopted in the resolution.
The art of disagreeing
There is a fine art to disagreeing with employees without seeming combative or stubborn, and all too often managers get caught up in the fact that “they know the business better” or “they’ve been in the business longer.” With differing opinions there must come detachment.
Don’t make it about being right or wrong, but have the overall goal of finding the best outcome for the business. Managers should make quality decisions based on data and facts, and this can only be done if they are able to disagree diplomatically when required. Because every staff member comes with their own filter for how they view and behave in a conflict, a manager needs to have a tight rein on his or her own personal reaction to disagreements.
Before engaging in any disagreement, whether it’s between colleagues, companies or competition, it’s essential to leave ego at the door and identify why a disagreement is occurring. Sometimes it’s simply a clash of personalities, but more often than not, it’s because someone can see something you can’t. Consider the fact that this colleague or client may be providing you with the opportunity to gain a fresh perspective that you didn’t have the latitude to scope. This is why a top-tier manager should be able to value the differences of those around them, rather than employ a strict autocratic leadership model.
Negotiate and compromise
Negotiation skills and a willingness to compromise are key characteristics of a diplomatic leader, and the best managers are able to negotiate in such a way that they receive the outcome they desire without the other parties realizing that they’ve compromised on their original position. Leadership is about surrounding yourself with a group of advisors, and if you build a reputation of being unmovable, you can quickly find yourself alone.
Ultimately, by creating a company culture conducive to discussion and feedback, you are facilitating a change around the myth that disagreements are a negative thing. The right way to disagree with others is only possible after you have listened to all perspectives while considering the impact on whatever decision is finally made. Whether you agree or not isn’t the point; the point is what resolution is best for the company, the team and the clients. Until you respect the opinions of others, they are unlikely to respect yours, but once a culture of discussion and appreciation is fostered, it will be far easier to make a decision that will be adhered to by even your strongest opponents.
This is why it’s important to have a healthy balance of personality types on your team who are capable of both encouraging and challenging. I have often heard the meekest of voices challenge me in a meeting, but once they realize it is absolutely welcomed, they gain confidence, and a discussion can truly start to form. This is not the time to assert your leadership position or flaunt your  dominance; this is the time to show your employees that you value their strengths and want them to contribute fully.
One of the strongest qualities of a good leader is their ability to say no to something without this causing tension or a loss of employee morale. Use each disagreement as an opportunity for greater understanding. If a staff member offers a suggestion that isn’t in line with company procedure or standards, take the time and brainstorm together the reasons it won’t work, and what an alternative could be, instead of belittling or disregarding the individual.
The core of a diplomatic leader comes down to respecting and valuing the strengths in those around them. This has nothing to do with personality differences or clashes, and everything to do with the ability to listen, respond and validate. If it is second nature to avoid conflict, you simply need to get over it because, quite frankly, conflict can be a productive and important part of analyzing data and reaching decisions.
Diplomatic leaders have to be comfortable that they are responsible for decisions that drive the company to success, as well as for the decisions that don’t work as well as planned; they need to be at ease with their own leadership abilities, and clear on the gaps that require personal investment.
This is a slightly amended version of an article written by Alexandra Tselios, business consultant and publisher of The Big Smoke. It has been shortened to make it suitable for web publishing.