Leading People through Major Disagreements

Mimi Bacilek

Issues that inspire great passion also inspire great divides. Passions and divisions between people are not limited to the political realm; they occur in the business world too. They create tremendous drain on resources and distract staff from the real work of generating business and satisfying customers.

Divisive issues rarely arise unexpectedly; in fact, leaders are often the people who bring them into the organizational conversation! Examples include reorganizations, changes to benefit packages, elimination of product lines and changes in strategic direction. The authors of Crucial Conversations (Covey, Grenny, McMillan, Patterson and Switzler) offer three things leaders can look to as predictors of division: opinions on the issue are varied; the stakes are high; and emotions run strong.

Skillful leaders recognize their role of predicting divisive issues and preemptively dealing with the inevitable passions that accompany them. They create an environment for healthy dialogue about a pathway forward.

People who feel passionately about an issue naturally present their perspective through the lens of emotion—tears, loud voices, sarcasm, profanity or defensive posturing. Most leaders respond to the outburst by dismissing the emotion and focusing on the issue that prompted it. And that is a recipe for trouble. Unacknowledged emotions continue to escalate until they either leak out or burst out. And that deepens the divisions making agreement increasingly difficult to attain.

The secret to leader success is to deal directly with the emotion, recognizing and validating it. In doing so, the leader demonstrates a desire to understand another’s perspective vs. have their perspective understood. This empathetic approach to listening models great respect for divergent beliefs. It generates an understanding of and tolerance for the positions others hold.

Agreement is achieved incrementally and it is rarely complete. As people share their passionate beliefs the leader’s role is to identify areas of agreement, no matter how small. As many small agreements are achieved, they are summarized demonstrating the degree to which consensus is developing. The reality is some differences will always remain; the business need is to eliminate the divisions.

Savvy leaders are ever vigilant for issues that may create divisions and for shepherding divergent opinions into agreement. Their efforts naturally shift the conversation from why someone else is wrong to what becomes possible by working in concert. And that is the mark of a great leader: someone who creates the pathway everyone can walk together.