To agree or not to agree, that is the question.
But the answer—at least the right one—might come as a surprise.
Imagine if you will a spectrum, a spectrum that measures agreeability, your agreeability in the workplace, from brown-noser to ball-buster and all points in between. Let’s score it on a 10-point system, the way judges do with gymnasts, frat boys do with coeds, and nerds do with baseball cards.
What’s your number, cucumber?
While determining that digit, concurrently contemplate what’s happened over the last 15-20 years. It’s become an almost religious tenet in modern business that everyone has to get along. Like. All. The. Time. No infighting. No arguing. No knock-down, drag-out, Jerry-Springer-style melees where insults—and the occasional chair—pinball around the board room.
Ah yes, the good old days.
But today and tomorrow (and tomorrow and tomorrow) many companies will continue to run on the fuel of unanimity. It’s like a murder trial: everyone agrees or it’s a hung jury and nothing happens. And this vector leads to one destination, where we’re all sitting in a circle, legs crossed, palms up, and singing that old song from the Coke commercial.
And while the Kumbaya Culture does wonders for the soul, does it also bring peace and tranquility to the bottom line? Or what about the other extreme, aka the demolition derby, Royal Rumble, human cockfighting ecosystem—we’ve all worked at places like that—where it’s so ruthless you might actually stab yourself in front to avoid getting stabbed by someone else in the back?
When it comes to agreeability, you don’t want to occupy either tail of that bell curve, a one or a 10. The optimal way to navigate through the typical corporate labyrinth is with a score of 7, leaning a little more toward Doberman than doormat, warrior than windsock. Whether it’s a product feature or a pricing program or a strategic initiative, if you want to contribute, like truly contribute, then you had better ball up your fists and mix it up every once in a while.
You owe it to your company… and to your career. Let’s dig deeper.
Steve Jobs, if autobiographical allegories are to be believed, learned everything he needed to know about the value of agreeability—or lack thereof—as a teenager, when he was doing yard work for a widowed neighbor. Jobs recounted the tale of putting the lawnmower away in the man’s garage and seeing some rocks so smooth they looked like marbles. The man told Jobs he didn’t find them; rather, he made them with a tumbler.
Jobs, inquisitive to a fault even at a young age, needed proof. He grabbed a handful of jagged, scraggly rocks and threw them into the can. He added some liquid and some grit power, closed the can and flipped the switch that started the motor.
“And he said, come back tomorrow,” Jobs said. “And the can was making a racket as the stones went around. And I came back the next day and we opened the can, and we took out these amazingly beautiful, polished rocks.”
This for Jobs, and for Apple, became a metaphor, and then the metaphor became a guiding principle of product innovation. It was more than hand-holding and back-slapping; rather, it was rough and tumble.
“It’s through the team, that group of incredibly talented people bumping up against each other, having arguments, having fights sometimes, making some noise. They polish each other and they polish the ideas. And what comes out are these really beautiful stones.”
Group Think Stinks
“Ever wonder why fund managers can’t beat the S&P 500?” Gordon Gekko asks Bud Fox in the movie Wall Street. “Because they’re sheep, and sheep get slaughtered.”
Score one for contrarianism.
It’s not easy to be the fly in the ointment, the monkey in the wrench, the pain in the ass (wait, that’s a different ’80s movie), but somebody’s got to do it. Somebody needs the temperament and the temerity to stand in front of that speeding locomotive of group think and hold up a hand to slow it down.
“If everyone is thinking the same, then somebody isn’t thinking,” General George Patton famously said. And whether the campaign is military or marketing, you need to tread cautiously when everyone wants to attack, and as a corollary, consider aggression when passion is prescribed.
You have to be willing to zig—or at least consider it—when the rest of the team wants to zag.
Emily Post Moves
Just because you have to disagree doesn’t mean you have to be disagreeable. There’s an art to argument, and it’s a subtle and fluid art. Remember, you’re going to have to work with these people again: you can’t, like those rocks in the tumbler, literally smash and bash into them with no regard for their position or sensitivities.
There’s a great saying that gets co-opted by a lot of companies that goes like this: “Say what you mean, mean what you say, but don’t say it mean.”
Grammatical imperfection aside—should be “meanly”—there’s a lot to glean from this message. As leaders, you are not paid to patronize or parrot. You need to voice your opinion, to say what you mean, even if it means you are the lone holdout in the debate. That’s your job. Conversely, and by the time this sentence is over, you will have an image of someone in your mind, a co-worker past or present that lived to contradict. We all know them. You say black, they say white. You say yes, they say no. You say shark, they say barracuda.
Don’t argue to argue. If you chime in with a differing opinion, make sure it’s genuine.
And the last part is self-explanatory. When shooting down someone’s idea, don’t use a Howitzer, use instead a little tact and decency. In other words, don’t be an ass. This will help keep your culture in the proper wheelhouse, where there’s indeed combat but it’s not overly combative. Besides, you’ll be glad to have shown restraint when it’s your idea that gets in the crosshairs.