It's Okay to Disagree or Getting Along Ain't All It's Cracked Up to Be

 

I have worked for a lot of really good managers/leaders. I have worked for some really bad managers/leaders. In fact, I have worked for one of the worst managers of all time. (Talk to people I've worked with; they will gladly support my assertion regarding that individual's abilities.) And yet, today's story is not about that particular manager. No, this tale is about someone I worked for a while ago who many people might even list as their all-time favorite boss. As the following story will reveal, I think he struggled at being a successful manager, a successful leader, and even a successful auditor.
 
How he reached his position of power is a story best saved for another time. (I plan on attending the All-Star Conference this year. If you see me, pull me aside and I'll be glad to share.) Instead, I want to tell a quick snippet from the discussion he and I had as a part of my performance review. 
 
We were discussing the portion of my performance planning where I indicated a desire to be considered for higher positions. He quickly explained that he did not think I was manager/executive/leader material. Somewhat taken aback (to be honest, he was the first to ever express such reservations; even He-who-must-not-be-named - the worst manager of all time – felt I was promotable), I asked why. He explained that I did not get along well with senior management.
 
Now, it would have been very easy to sulk and crawl back to my cubicle and claim he didn't know what he was talking about and, in general, act like a spoiled auditor who decided to just take his workpapers home and not let anyone else play. And, had that been my only response (trust me, my inner child did take this a bit poorly and go off on a few rants and rampages I am now ashamed to recall) then you would have no reason to listen to the rest of my tale. Instead, you could, in good conscience, write off my conclusions as a great big bunch of sour grapes.
 
However, I was determined to see if this represented a significant blind spot in my self-assessment. I followed up with people to whom I knew I could talk freely. This included some of the individuals with whom it had been suggested I did not get along. My search turned up empty. No problems; no concerns; no corroboration of the assessment I had been given. 
 
It took a little time, but during my discussions I finally learned the reasons for the review I had been given. I already knew that my boss did not like conflict. In fact, he would do almost anything to avoid it. (Remind me later and I'll share the story of the time he told me "No" and I did not realize it until three meetings later.) I eventually learned that the reason he thought I didn't get along with senior management was that I was willing to argue with them – I was willing to express opinions which might not exactly match that held by the individual to whom we were talking.
 
I have a quote on my wall.   (Unfortunately, I do not know where I got it. Therefore, I must provide it without attribution. I apologize.) "People don't have to agree; they just have to be smart when they disagree."
 
I worked for another manager (a real leader) who was a master at bringing people together who had different opinions. When we would organize our department's annual conference, one of his favorite tasks was building the breakout groups. He relished identifying teams consisting of individuals who had very different ideas on how things should work. (Sometimes he brought together people who actively disliked each other.) He loved to create sparks.
 
It didn't always work, it wasn't always the most productive, it didn't always result in the best ideas. But, more often than not, those groups had hammered out their ideas more thoroughly than anyone else. And, more often than not, they were the best ideas.
 
Lesson the first: The concept of any leader who feels that the best approach in all situations is to get along – to not create conflict – is anathema to "leadership" and I defy you to find me one truly successful leader/manager/executive/fill-in-the-title-here that was able to maintain even a modicum of success with that strategy.
 
Lesson the second: The concept of any auditors believing they and their department can be successful without conflict is as foreign as the idea that issues will just fall from the sky and reports will write themselves. It ain't gonna happen.
 
There is no doubt you have to be smart about the way you disagree, argue, or stand your ground (and goodness knows I haven't always been smart), but there is absolutely no chance of success if all you do is just try to get along. Internal auditors have to be willing to know the situation and stand their ground. That is a foundation of leadership, and it is a foundation for the success of internal audit.

Posted on Apr 7, 2014 by Mike Jacka

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  1. Mike - have managers changed over the past 40 years in the way they handle conflict? When I joined my company (in the UK) in the mid-70s you could disagree with senior management, they seemed to see this as evidence of an inquiring challenging mind (though you'd better come up with robust reasoning). As younger managers came through, disagreement was disliked. It was seen as 'disloyal' and very often those who disagreed were 'let go' or demoted. The younger managers seemed to lack the confidence of their predecessors. This may have arisen because many many had little experience of managing people whereas the older managers had this experience, probably through 'national service' (conscription into the armed forces). Are the new breed of managers more afraid of conflict?

  1. Brings to mind the saying..."you can agree to disagree."

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