December 6, 2019

Disagreement as a Measure of Team Health

  —It's ok for team members to respectfully disagree with each other.

My team has a problem. They don’t disagree with each other or with me. They would rather go with the flow than rock the boat. This results in wasted effort and frustration.

The ability to respectfully disagree is an important trait of a healthy team. Nay, it’s a critical behaviour for a team to remain healthy.

Without disagreement there isn’t honest discussion. Without honest discussion nothing gets resolved.

Our lack of disagreement manifests in a few ways.

  • Engaged team members would work on things the team said they needed. That work would be ignored. In one instance, a team member tried to support another by getting people to use the shared work. That activity ended in frustration.
  • Our team meetings, modelled on Lean Coffee, don’t work. The only barrier to entry for Lean Coffee is having a topic you want to discuss. Or interest in what others have to say.

    First, the team couldn’t get the meeting to work because the meeting didn’t have enough structure. What were we trying to accomplish? How do we know what’s happening they asked. (I publish minutes with actions and dates.)

    People came to the meeting who didn’t know why they were there or what they wanted from it. There wasn’t anything they felt compelled to discuss. Nothing to share–no learnings, no process changes, no challenges. Nothing.

  • Implict power relationships that manifest in terms of knowledge hoarding. Senior developers unable or unwilling to share with junior developers. Also manifested with people saying they weren’t involved in decisions they needed to know about.

People didn’t respect each other’s time or effort. Good ideas die a slow death of neglect after completion.

I misunderstood the difficulty with the team meeting because I focused on the barrier to entry. I think structure was an attempt to create a safe place to discuss important topics. But those who wanted the discussion were afraid.

When I first joined this team, the senior people weren’t engaged with the junior people. The junior people were frustrated and complained of not being able to learn things. This initially confused me because the dialog was all around the logistics of setting up a “lunch and learn”. Someone said the lack of pizza is an impediment to their learning.

I think of the pizza issue as a different form of a failure to disagree. Senior developers made excuses to cover disinterest and the junior developers naively accepted these excuses as legitmate. The junior developers settled. No pizza justified not investing in themselves.

For a while, I identified lack of disagreement as “not caring”. I asked why don’t you care about this topic or that. My notion of “caring” is simple: if you care you have an opinion or make a positive contribution to the issue. Team members argued they cared. Their arguments for “caring” never focused on the topic. They deflected it by pointing out how hard they were working.

Conversations are like this:

“We should do X to solve Y.”

“But X won’t solve Z.”

“What do you propose?”

“I’m not saying X won’t work.”

Classic argument: your idea doesn’t solve an adjacent problem and no alternatives are provided. Then retreat leaving confusion–should we be fixing Y or Z?

These arguments oppose change, hide a lack of support and try to discourage it. This isn’t very different from a Concern Troll. Introduce fear, uncertainty and doubt to create paralysis. Enshrine a do-nothing attitude wrapped in the platitudes of generating better outcomes.

I recognize failure to disagree as a lack of trust. My notion of caring implied debate, disagreement, decisions and commitment. The team’s interpretation of caring is that they were doing their jobs.

If you are a student of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team then improve trust by going first. The idea for creating conflict is to mine for it. I’m wearing a miner’s hat, light on and digging for the motherlode. Maybe get in some spelunking while I’m at it.

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