This article originally appeared on HBR.org.
Just over a year ago, I talked with the executive vice president of HR for a Fortune 100 company about Joe,* a member of the senior leadership team: “Joe has good ideas, but he’s really negative, and he always plays the devil’s advocate. The CEO doesn’t really listen to Joe in meetings anymore because he’s tired of hearing the challenges and opposition. I think the CEO is finally done trying to make it work.”
Two months later, Joe was fired.
Despite Joe being brilliant, driven, insightful, and knowledgeable about the industry, and having a long and successful career in the organization, his pattern of critiquing and disagreeing led to his termination. The public story was that Joe was “moving on to new opportunities”; the backstory was that the CEO needed Joe to get on board with the company’s new strategy, but Joe’s perpetual opposition was annoying, inefficient, and evidence that he was not aligned with the CEO and the rest of the team.
As I considered Joe’s story, I thought about other leaders and executive teams I have worked with where similar patterns have existed. I recognized an “opposer” in virtually every team I’ve worked with in the last decade. Not only did every team have an opposer (or two), but almost every team was annoyed by the behavior, considered it unhelpful, and wished it (and the person) would go away. In some cases, reactions to the opposer were quite intense, ranging from stonewalling or the silent treatment to aggressive outbursts.
Why does repeated opposition cause negative reactions? There are many reasons — here are a few:
- Opposition seems jarring and appears to slow the team down. When everything is going smoothly and people are agreeing and building on one another’s ideas, disagreement can feel unexpected — like a speed bump when you’re driving fast, or a pointless detour when you’ve got somewhere else to go. What seemed like an efficient conversation or decision process can suddenly feel slowed or even stalled as the objections are discussed.
- Disagreement can feel personal — and it usually doesn’t feel good. Even when handled skillfully, where the focus is on the ideas, not the person, the disagreement can affect us as if we’re being personally criticized. It’s easy to internalize the disagreement and believe it means “you’re wrong” or “your ideas are bad” or even “you’re not smart.” Ouch! And if the disagreement is less skillful, that’s even more likely.
- It feels like the person doing the opposing is intentionally derailing the conversation. It might be to draw attention to themselves, to win political points, or because of some character flaw. One of the most researched cognitive biases in the field of psychology is the fundamental attribution error, where we explain our own errors with circumstances (“I was late because of traffic”) and other’s errors as being about their character (“He was late because he’s lazy”). When you hear an opposer, you likely experience this bias, and however you interpret their behavior (and it really is nothing more than your interpretation), they will likely make you angry.
- Many people are uncomfortable with conflict. Opposition is a part of conflict. Typical reactions to conflict range from ignoring to avoiding, escaping, or counterattacking. Your amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for the flight-or-fight response, can be triggered by conflict, leading to responses of anxiety, retreat, or aggression.
- Opposition is interpreted as lack of unity. If you experienced the prior lack of conflict and disagreement as everyone being on board — united, happy, and aligned — then the introduction of opposition can shatter that pleasant picture. If you are someone who places a high value on cohesion and harmony, you will not be pleased with the opposition.
And yet all of the work my colleagues and I have done with leaders and teams and all of the research we’ve reviewed on this topic confirm that opposition is essential for effective and productive groups and teams. In a recent HBR article, Roberto Verganti argues that criticism is imperative for innovation. If you step back from the personal reactions you have to opposition and take a systems lens to the dialogue, you see that opposition plays a crucial role in helping teams assess the quality of ideas, differentiate between different approaches, limit unproductive conversation, and ultimately make high-quality decisions. Opposition is necessary, but people typically don’t like it and resist it.
So what can a leader or team member do to welcome an opposer’s contributions without personalizing what feels like an attack?
- Explicitly ask for opposition. For every major decision, ask the team to consider reasons against the prevailing opinion. By doing this, you will normalize opposition and help the team see it as a regular and important part of the decision-making process. In her best-selling book Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin explains that President Lincoln staffed his whole cabinet with opposers to create a more effective team. If disagreement is requested and required, it will lessen the likelihood that people who oppose are seen as difficult or wrong.
- Ask each person to share an opposing view. This will further the normalizing process, help everyone on the team build the skill and will to offer opposing views, and increase the likelihood that you will have equal participation in the team — one of the most important characteristics of highly effective teams.
- Don’t instinctively resist the opposition. Even if you’re sure your original position was right, really listen to, consider, and evaluate the opposing ideas and allow yourself to be influenced by them.
- Don’t demonize opposers. Notice your reactions to opposition, and before you act on that awareness, choose to see the system and the value in the opposition. People who oppose almost never have bad intentions — they are usually trying very hard to do something they see is valuable and crucial for the good of the team. Sometimes they are unconsciously creating a balance in the team when there is low or no opposition by introducing more opposition to ensure issues are examined carefully from every angle. Some opposers get stuck in that role if no one else will take it on. Have empathy and appreciation instead of anger.
- Give feedback to the person opposing. Tell them that you see value in their different viewpoint and that you appreciate what they are contributing. If they are less skillful in their opposition, share the impact they are having on you. You can also suggest that they articulate when they are in agreement so their comments will be seen as more balanced. Many opposers mostly speak when they sense opposition is necessary.
- Be transparent about your reactions and self-management. This may feel like a stretch, but share with the team that you are feeling frustrated or annoyed or that you’re taking something personally, and describe how you have stepped back to take a systems lens and see the value in the criticism. You’ll be demonstrating awareness, authenticity, and self-management as well as reinforcing the norm of inviting opposition and appreciating its value.
- Don’t equate opposition with lack of unity and cohesiveness. See it as a sign of team health. The most effective and successful teams have conflict and disagreement. If you are seeing more of this — particularly if it’s done skillfully — welcome it and recognize your team is stronger for it.
- Celebrate and thank people who offer opposition. They are helping the team be better, even if it is uncomfortable at times.
Despite the initial reactions of dislike, discomfort, annoyance, and resistance to opposition, successful leaders and healthy teams know that disagreement and differing viewpoints are necessary for good decisions and productive teams. When you separate the behavior from the person, notice and manage your own reactions, and take explicit steps to encourage and reward opposition, you will be moving toward building stronger teams and running your business more effectively.