Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Thinking through alignment and disagreement 1: negotiating within a business

Posted in strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on November 4, 2013

It is all right to disagree in a business, and disagreement and open discussion of alternative approaches, perspectives and understandings can be crucial to a business’ long term success. It can even at times be particularly important and I add particularly valuable to a business to openly consider and even challenge what have been simply assumed as the basics of that organization and its mission and vision – and particularly in times of change and when the business is facing significant challenge from that. But at the same time, after this discussion and disagreement, and after positions and justifying arguments for them have been aired, it is just as important to find a point of alignment that everyone can work around, and both operationally and strategically. Ultimately, a single overarching set of goals and priorities, and approaches for reaching them have to be agreed to and accepted. So both disagreement and alignment are important and even necessary, and they both can and should play roles in an organization’s basic decision making and consensus building processes.

My goal for this posting is to at least begin a discussion as to how disagreement and alignment can be managed and arrived at, and without undue stress and with everyone involved knowing that they have been listened to and respected. And I begin this by noting some of the pitfalls and traps that can prevent disagreement from becoming, if not complete agreement then at least a willingness to go along with a decision reached – and alignment.

• The commonest problems that I have seen in this all in some way involve people talking past each other. And that can arise from any of a wide range of communications mistakes.
• When people simply assume the reasoning behind the points they make and the positions they hold, and fail to clearly explain them to others, they weaken their position and reduce any chance that they might win others over to their perspective. This is common.
• When people make assumptions as to what others seek and why this creates problems for all concerned too. And this can mean assuming that others will go along with what you say, and it can mean assuming automatic resistance. This can be an easy trap to fall into and I add that most of us know at least some people who generally find themselves in agreement with us and most of us know at least someone who always seems to take a contrarian position and on seemingly everything. But particularly when an issue under discussion is important and of far reaching consequence, people can reconsider and take what for them might seem an unexpected position.
• And along with communications challenges per se, we can create our own problems from how we hold to our own views and opinions. Some things we do need to hold closely to and particularly where business decisions intersect with and potentially collide with our sense of moral or ethical value and our sense of right and wrong. But often there is room for compromise in deciding how best to proceed in a business decision and without compromising any of the participants in this discussion or anyone who would be affected by decisions made. If we simply see every possible detail as holding equal and paramount importance, and we leave no room for discussion, we close off the possibility for anyone to reach agreement with us unless they happen to start out in complete agreement anyway, in which case there probably will not be much of a discussion.

Yes, this is a posting about negotiations, and about filtering out what we need to hold to as our fixed positions, and what we can negotiate and even reach middle grounds on. And I add that even more authoritarian and top-down leadership style approaches can benefit from more open discussion. An authoritarian leader might always make the final decisions, but they still benefit from being able to make them from among as wide a range of options as possible, and with as rich and understanding of context and impact as possible too – and even when they have to make unpopular decisions.

• People are more apt to actively work towards and even support a decision that they do not favor if they approach it knowing that they were at least listened to and that their approach was considered too.

I have been focusing here on negotiations within a business and will follow this with a next installment in which I will add in customers and other external stakeholders. Meanwhile, you can find this posting at Business Strategy and Operations – 3 and related material at Page 1 and Page 2 of that directory.

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