Agreeing to disagree is always a cop-out

Too often I see the following scenario: A team meets to discuss issues that are critical to the organization’s success. The conversation goes on and on without resolution, as different people have divergent opinions about the best course of action. When the leader tries to bring it to a conclusion, they are no closer to alignment. They leave the meeting “agreeing to disagree.”

Such meetings are worse than a waste of time, in fact, they can actually damage the organization, which is then no closer to making the necessary decisions and assuming responsibility for them. People compromise and stay within their comfort zones at the expense of moving the organization forward in new and dynamic ways.

Take as an example a successful technology company that was trying to take its game to the next level. One of their biggest challenges – and opportunity – was to get all their business units and functions working together in a more cohesive and aligned way. Instead of interacting with customers with one voice, different sales and services groups were promoting their own agendas, often competing with other internal groups for customers’ mindshare and business. Cross-selling was suffering and a lot of potential revenues was left on the table.

The senior leadership team of this company made many attempts to get on the same page. They scheduled many long and exhausting meetings, but these meetings only perpetuated the vagueness and didn’t create clarity and alignment. Leaders left these meetings with different understandings and expectations and every time issues came up and a leader would say “But, we agreed on this!” a colleague would respond with “We never agreed on this!” Needless to say, this company was not going to the next level any time soon.

Why does this happen?

It is either because leaders lack the courage to drive clarity in the face of controversy, or they lack the understanding of their role as leaders, or they lack the ability to effectively manage conversations.

True leaders know how important it is to have an open debate with honest, respectful listening because there is rarely a single right answer to any dilemma or question. They are able to elevate their people to set aside their personal egos, agendas, and preferences to align with the collective wisdom of the group. They instill in their teams a real commitment to the type of conversation that leads to making choices, aligning behind those choices, and taking responsibility together. This requires courage.

There is never a justification to leave a conversation agreeing to disagree. It is always a cop-out!

Of course, some topics are complex and may need a number of meetings to gather the necessary input and to digest it as a group. But paralysis by analysis is always an excuse to avoid taking a stand. And, the cost of lack of decisiveness, accountability, and follow-through is cynicism, resignation, and stagnation.

Achieving extraordinary results requires the ability to align on goals. Agreeing to disagree precludes that. Organizations that achieve 100 per cent alignment behind a goal that is 80 percent right have a much greater chance of success than those where people are divided behind a perfect goal. Compromise too often means that some of the people are 100 percent behind one point of view and others are zero percent. How motivated are those ‘zero percent people’ to work towards the success of a goal they have not endorsed? They are the ones watching and waiting to say: “I told you so”.

Obviously, it is scary to step up to the plate and take full responsibility for a goal or direction that is uncertain, controversial, difficult to achieve, or politically incorrect. Making choices means eliminating alternatives. But when team members do find the courage to make tough choices, they are immediately more powerful. They are able to apply their energy towards proving their choices right rather than wasting energy on proving that others are wrong.

If an entire team is genuinely behind one direction – even if it is only 80 percent correct – if they truly align, commit to that direction, and backstop each other, it is astounding what can happen.

Are you victims of circumstances or accountable owners?

Every day at work, people assign blame, don’t take responsibility for things that happen and relate to the game like they are merely pawns, not powerful players. You almost never hear someone simply say, “I know I said I would do this, but I didn’t.” Instead, you typically get the reasons why they did not do X, Y or Z and a laundry list of justifications due to all the things that are outside of their control.

Consider this case of one Fortune 1000 telecommunications company. In an almost iconic business conflict, the regional teams complained that headquarters (HQ) didn’t understand or care about the real challenges they were facing locally. On the other side, HQ teams complained that the field was selfish. They always saw themselves as unique and entitled. They didn’t understand or care about the bigger corporate challenges. And, instead of being team players, they always pushed for getting what they wanted, when they wanted it.

This deadlock of different agendas and points of view led to a growing frustration where everyone saw themselves as victims of the other. The field team members gossiped about what jerks those guys in HQ were, and the back-channel talk among the HQ team was equally unproductive, and oriented around how the field needed to spend less time complaining and whining and, more time aligning with the corporate strategy and politics.

When, on a rare occasion, the field and HQ teams did engage in discussions to address the issues, only about 20% of the items on the table got talked about, and even this 20% was not discussed openly and effectively, so very little changed.

Over time the HQ team became entrenched in the idea that the field simply can’t collaborate and act like a true partner. As a result, instead of inviting them to participate in key programs and engendering cooperation, they just mandated, dictated and told the field what to do.  This, of course, only provoked and fueled the field’s resentment toward the HQ.

In turn, the field resisted many of the programs that were pushed out from HQ or they simply paid lip service to them. And, while all this was done in quite a subtle and polite way, without confrontation and outbursts, tremendous amounts of energy was wasted — while operational and business objectives went unmet.

I’m sure you see this type of dynamic in your organization too – everyone feeling that they are doing their part, but no one is ensuring that the parts actually produce the whole?!

Why does this happen? Why are teams willing to settle for sub-optimal collaboration, results and the lack of satisfaction that comes with it?

Unfortunately, the answer is simple and everyone knows it – there is a payoff from having a victim mentality!

As long as both parties are wallowing in their mutual complaints about the other, they do not have to fix the situation but rest instead in blame. Everyone is focused on what the other is doing wrong, and no one has to be accountable. Unfortunately, the cost of this tactic is grave both in personal unsatisfaction and unhappiness, as well as in compromised performance and results.

I see this type of dynamic in most organizations, most of the time, between many teams and functions. There are no winners in this dance!

So, how do you transform such mischief into something more productive?

First, let me warn you that taking this on requires Courage and Leadership.

Here are four simple, but powerful steps:

  1. Tell the truth. Telling the truth about what isn’t working is critical for any transformation. You won’t succeed without it. This first step is most challenging, mainly because people are so wrapped up in the pretense that “everything is going well.” Admitting that it isn’t is the toughest thing to do, but, as someone wise once said: “The truth will set you free…”
  1. Express your desire and commitment. Don’t start with a plan, start with a declaration of desire and commitment. Answer the questions: “What do you want?” and “How would you like the partnership to be?” Take a stand. It’s pointless to spend time on a plan before both parties are 100% clear about, and committed to, a shared end result.
  1. Establish clear agreements and practices. The best way to cement a new commitment and turn it into reality is to agree to practices consistent with that new future you are aspiring to, and then put them into action.
  1. Manage and track progress. More than 70% of all big initiatives fail because of lack of execution and followup. Make sure you follow up and review progress frequently, including acknowledging successes and confronting and addressing shortfalls. This is key in order to make sure the new agreements and practices become a new reality.

I know these steps may sound over-simplified, and they probably are. However, if you relate to these as guiding principles and spaces to get through, and you try to bring them about you will see that there is a power in this simple framework.

Do you have the nerve to be a bold and powerful leader?

There are two things required for leaders to achieve extraordinary results – first is a robust strategy that everyone understands and believes in. And second is the nerve to stay the course and make it happen. Most strategies fail because of the second, not the first.

When leaders want to achieve extraordinary results – in good or bad times – they must address two aspects of strategy. First, they must develop a clear game plan for where they want their organization to be, and how to get there. Second, they must create an environment of authentic ownership, accountability and communication inside which the plan can be implemented. None of this is revolutionary.

The only way employees will commit to a bold plan is if they believe their leaders have the nerve to do what it takes to make it happen. Most leaders are ignorant of this critical fact, or they underestimate it. They believe that all they need to do is a good job of communicating the plan, demand compliance, and tie compensations and rewards to its achievement; with these in place, people will naturally fall in line. Nothing is further from the truth.

If people doubt their leader’s nerve, they will be cautious, keep ideas, suggestions and problems hidden, and only ‘appear’ to be on board. When asked, they will say the right things. But in their hearts, they will be disengaged.

Far too often I have seen leaders declare a bold, ambitious change strategy, only to achieve little traction. Why? Because they failed to address and deal with the key issues necessary to achieve their bold future.

These key issues often revolved around successful but entitled senior managers, whose behavior was not consistent with the organization’s stated values and spirit, and sometimes even decisions. Despite politically correct declarations by the leader to the contrary, the lack of holding these individuals to account sent a clear message to employees that the boldness of the change strategy was hot air. Cynicism reigned, and the strategy remained little more than a slide deck.

Leaders must have the nerve to face reality, including admitting mistakes or owning up to places they or their predecessors fell short.

Without that, people doubt leader’s credibility, sincerity and competence. As a result, they will go through the motions, but they will not wholeheartedly join in.

Leaders who can only stomach positive or diplomatic conversations will have no time for the difficult, messy territory of complaints and worries that must be addressed before people are willing to engage in anything else.

In today’s difficult economic environment, having nerve is more critical than ever. To hear and address people’s skepticism, doubts, fears or uncertainties requires courage. To infuse hope and confidence in the face of seemingly endless gloom and doom requires a strong backbone.

Nerve is what allows leaders to inspire and energize people when many are feeling uncertain or anxious. Nerve distinguishes real leaders from managers, administrators and bureaucrats.

Are you giving yourself bad advice about important things?

How much time do you spend – or shall I say ‘waste’ – in your head? I mean listening to your own private thoughts, concerns, and conversations?

We do it mostly when we are troubled, upset or in distress. That’s the time that we need sound advice, guidance, and support. But, that is the time we often go to the wrong and worst place to get it – our own head.

I was coaching an executive who wanted to advance his career and get the promotion he felt he deserved. The executive was generally a passionate and expressive person and leader. But, every time he had opportunities to promote himself, his skills and his accomplishments in front of his peers, boss and other superiors he froze or held back. It was as if he became a different person. When we tried to get to the source of this dynamic I learned that whilst outwardly the executive appeared confident and bold, internally he often doubted and second-guessed himself. When he wasn’t paying attention to his internal noise he behaved as his authentic self. But when he did it was quite a different matter.

Another senior executive I was coaching often lost his temper when he disagreed with peers, especially when they criticized his function. He was a very smart and powerful leader. He knew that his outbursts derailed management team conversations, and hurt his reputation. However, it was hard for him to change his ways because his personal thoughts were telling him that his peers were, in fact, trying to undermine and marginalize his function. His thoughts and feelings were so real and strong that it took a lot of persuasion effort to make him see that maybe they were not true.

Another example, I was supporting a leader who had lost his job four months earlier in a downsizing initiative, after working in that same company for more than 20 years. He hadn’t been able to find a new job, he felt as if that the sky had fallen. He was distraught and it was hard for him to see possibilities beyond his feelings. He said things like: “I will never find another job or company like the one I was fired from,” and “no one will hire me at my age.” He shared with me that at a certain point it was hard for him to get out of bed because he didn’t feel he had something worthwhile to get up for.

I could relate to all three examples from my own life experiences. I have been there in distressed situations when things did not pan out the way I had hoped. At the time, these situations were disappointing, upsetting and even depressing. But, what often made it worst is listening to my personal thoughts and conversations saying things like: “I should have had a more realistic goal”, “How can I show my face in public? ” and “I’ll probably never be able to achieve this dream”.

It is often said that we are our worst critics. And that is true. Our personal thoughts and concerns are often undermining, guilt-driven and very convincing. They seem so real, true and objective, that it is often hard to think beyond them.

However, think about this rationally, if you wanted advice in an important area of your life would you go to someone who doesn’t have your best interest in mind, or would you go to someone you trust, who understands what you want, knows what it takes and is committed to helping you get there? It’s a no-brainer.

Your own private thoughts, concerns, and conversations are often the worst place to get sound and effective advice that will make a difference in helping you reach a new level – especially when you are dealing with upsetting situations. So, stop listening to them!


Because our private ‘thoughts and concerns’ are often like ‘Statler and Waldorf’, the two old men from The Muppet Show, who sit in the balcony seats and make sarcastic comments about everything that goes on in the show. Our personal thoughts and concerns have one main agenda – to keep us in our comfort zone. They don’t want you to stick your neck out too far, take risks or express yourself too passionately. So, when they give you consoling and supportive advice, and you listen and buy it – don’t be mistaken – you pay a hefty price tag of disempowering yourself.

So, what could you do instead?

Find someone who knows you, believes in you, is committed to you, and someone who can see straight – ask them for advice and coaching, and then listen to everything they say – do what they tell you to do, no matter what your personal noise says about it. Yes, you may have to “fake it ’til you make it” at first, but if you stay the course and stay out of your head for long enough, you will start seeing clearly again, and you will start feeling back in the saddle.

So, if you resonate with all this, here are a few other practical tips for staying out of your head:

1. Communicate –When you communicate in an open, honest, courageous and authentic way you can transform your reality, establish deep love and connection, heal ailments and achieve extraordinary accomplishments. Communicating is the opposite, perhaps even contradiction of being in your head. In fact, when you find yourself stuck, communicate how you feel with someone you trust and you will see how quickly you will feel better and return to yourself. Even though most of us know all this – we often tend to avoid communicating in the most critical moments when it is most important and needed to communicate.
2. Journal – Journaling has almost the same impact to communicating. Just instead of speaking to someone else you are emptying all your thoughts onto paper without censorship. I got exposed to journaling more than 20 years ago through Julia Cameron’s book “The Artist’s Way” ( I still practice journaling from time to time, especially when I am at a crossroads, need to make an important decision, want to plan the next chapter of my professional or personal life or want to stay centered and clear headed in challenging times. I strongly recommend this practice as a powerful way to stay out of your head and in the real game.
3. Take action – Small actions. One step at a time. Every day say what you will do the next day and do it. You can even write it down or have a partner to hold you to account. At the end of each day acknowledge what you did and what you missed and commit again to the next day of a few clear actions. If you do this you will see that your promises become larger and more meaningful and your achievement rate is higher too.
4. Be around positive and empowering people – Stay around positive and empowering people who always believe in you, give you energy, relate to you as great and never allow you to buy into your internal disempowering thoughts and concerns.