The importance of normalising disagreement and feedback

No one loves awkward conversations. Think about how you felt the last time you had a difficult conversation. And it’s not just during the conversation, it’s the lead up too.

These awkward conversations are often performance related, for example where we need to give feedback to someone about their performance. Or it could just be where we disagree with someone about a strategy or project (or any of the myriad of things that result in disagreements in the workplace.

Neuroscience supports the view that whether you are having the awkward conversation, or even just thinking about having to have the conversation, the amygdala is being activated, which means we are thinking less rationally, and we have less emotional regulation available at the time when we really need it.

And these thoughts are also draining cognitive energy which could be directed to way more productive pursuits!

And because these conversations are difficult, especially if we are already low on cognitive energy for the day, we tend to avoid having them, which means that situations or behaviour are often tolerated for longer than they should be.

Of course in some situations, people say something is “fine” when of course it’s really not, and neuroscience supports that this kind of emotional suppression is a fast track to drain cognitive energy.

And to make matters worse, people often shy away from these conversations because they are scared of having bullying claims made against them.

Of course this often results in lower productivity, less engagement, a worse culture, and makes it harder to retain your best performers.

So let’s go back a step to determine why this is occurring …

Difficult conversations only ever arise due to a mismatch of expectations. It’s really that simple.

Many people believe that differences of opinions, or disagreements are difficult conversations. In this case we have a mismatch in expectations of whether or not disagreement is a bad thing.

This is exacerbated by many workplaces going too far in thinking they are promoting psychological safety to avoid bullying, and yet they are only promoting “superficial harmony” where everyone feels like it’s better just to get along.

This is probably exacerbated even further by a lack of resilience amongst co-workers (“the everyone gets a trophy for breathing” mentality of schools has a lot to answer for!)

Psychological safety is not just about feeling safe to ask questions and disagree with others, it’s also about feeling safe to be questioned, and to be disagreed with by others.

So the real reason why people are having to have awkward conversations, is because disagreement or feedback conversations haven’t been normalised to be an expected part of work.

So how should we address these conversations?

Firstly it’s not really about addressing the conversation itself. It’s about creating clarity as part of your workplace culture that these conversations will occur. And not only that, but they should be expected, and also seen as helpful conversations.

We need to normalise disagreement.

We need to normalise that there will be feedback and that there will be a conversation to discuss it.

We need to set the standard on how these conversations should take place. For example, I always like to say “we encourage disagreement, but you can’t be disagreeable”.

We need to normalise that these conversations are how we grow, and when executed in the way we’ve discussed, these are not bullying.

We need to normalise that not everyone at work will be your best friend, but that we all support each other’s professional careers.

And when should we act?

It’s important to set these expectations as early as possible. Ideally as part of the hiring process: the job description should include information about company culture.

These processes should be mentioned again and continued throughout induction, and then right up to the conversations actually occurring.

Basically we need to normalise these conversations, well before we actually we have some form of disagreement or opportunity to provide feedback in a safe way with the intention of enhancing growth.

If you don’t set this up prior to you needing to have these kinds of conversations, you’ll find emotions will be running hot, and that’s hardly the time to set up the right environment and processes. But once you have the right environment and processes, everyone involved will save energy credits because it’s no longer a difficult conversation, it’s just a conversation which should be completely expected.

Whether they realise it or not, many leaders are prioritising superficial harmony over constructive disagreement and feedback. This inhibits individual and company growth and fosters an avoidance culture.

It’s super important for leaders to normalise what have typically been referred to as “difficult conversations” so that they are now just “conversations”. By normalising these conversations you’ll be optimising your team’s cognitive energy which enhances productivity and profitability, which in turn helps to retain your high performing staff.

If you are interested in finding out more, why not register for our next Open workshop series where we discuss these topics in more detail.