The Art of Productive Disagreement

The Art of Productive Disagreement

We widely accept the idea that collaboration and collegiality are critical workplace attributes, and that the most effective teams are the ones that get along well. But research shows that diverse teams are more productive. With diversity often come widely different points of view.

Disagreement and differing perspectives are a fundamental characteristic of any team or group. But the extent to which these disagreements can be productively shared and processed differentiates effective teams from high-performing ones. Many debates can be resolved by focusing on what everyone agrees on, but even better solutions result if we have the skills and tools to explore, accept, confront and resolve outright disagreements.

But this is hard. Too often we disengage from people with whom we disagree, and recent research demonstrates that we seek input and feedback only from friendly sources.  

Learning to disagree generatively and productively, so that we can actually work with people different than ourselves, is key to the success of any organization. And being thoughtful about our own perceptions is critical to those generative social interactions because it enhances our ability to take new perspectives, to adopt new viewpoints, to see the world through the eyes of another.

Henri Rousseau's painting, "The Representatives of Foreign Powers Coming to Salute The Republic as a Sign of Peace."

Henri Rousseau, The Representatives of Foreign Powers Coming to Salute The Republic as a Sign of Peace, 1907, Musée Picasso, Paris [Public Domain] via

That’s why the discussions at Books@Work sessions can be so powerful. When colleagues share their reactions to a story, they can quickly discover that they interpreted the same events in very different ways, or had widely divergent reactions to characters or situations. And these varying viewpoints provide both windows for learning more about coworkers and platforms for reflection on one’s own view of the world. First, as one participant says, “you really do start to see the whole person.” And that changes the way we react to new perspectives.

Disagreements may no longer seem like preludes to argument but opportunities for growth. Openness and respect grow and defensiveness retreats. As a different participant told us, exploring others’ perspectives “promotes those communications and that comfort level of challenging somebody, in a completely professional, non-confrontational way.” Another says “it was really easy to get our thoughts and feelings out in a respectful way, which I don’t think was always the case before.”

Workplace relationships benefit when we create opportunities for sharing and exploring diverse views – and that can lead to improvements in workplace outcomes as well. And what’s true of organizations, we believe is true of their surrounding communities: their strength, creativity and resilience is due in large measure to their diversity. Rather than seeking to eliminate or hide the differences that define us, learning more about them may be just the fuel we need for effective collaboration.

One participant sums it up beautifully: “When you read these books together, it brings some commonality. If they’re picking up something different in the story, then they’re picking up something different in everyday dialogue, too. It’s helped me realize, that, okay, they’re interpreting my conversation or the group’s conversation differently, and not to take it so personally or think that I didn’t get my point across, because it’s just a different interpretation. That’s what makes a great team, the different perspectives.”

Image: Jean Fouquet, Battle of Fontenoy-en-Puisaye in 841, 1460, [Public Domain] via

Learn More About Our Programs or Read More on The Notebook:

On War, Dancing and Light: Why Metaphors Matter
Storytelling as “Game-Changing Technology”
Comparing Points of View: A Reading Journey

Hugh McDonald

Hugh McDonald

Hugh McDonald is an Executive Producer at Ideum and former member of the Books@Work team.