Unity is best served by disagreement. That is, people are most likely to commit to an action – even one they disagree with – if they have had the chance to make their point, explore different views, and even have a good old row.
Therefore, if you want to create a more cohesive organisation you might actually look for ways to increase the volume of debate, criticism and controversy.
Silence does not resolve disagreement. It just buries it to fester. If people are denied their opportunity to speak their mind in open constructive debate, they will express their views in other ways – in gossip, sabotage and procrastination. The Table Group have a great turn of phrase for this: “silence in the meeting leads to violence in the corridor”.
It is not easy to ensure all voices are fairly heard. Often the loudest and most powerful can stifle a broader debate. But confidence is not correlated with correctness. A good chair will keep balance and nurture the quieter voices. They are not afraid of forceful contributions or passionate advocacy, quite the opposite, they relish it, but they also value the thoughtful reflection, the half formed worry and the awkward question.
The main trick with disagreement is knowing when to stop. You can’t keep rehashing old issues in endless debate or reopening old wounds or hoping to win dissenters over or deferring until you have more information. Hint: you will never have enough information.
You don’t need unanimity or consensus. You don’t need a vote. It is a matter of judgement – when all views have been aired and the argument is becoming circular or sterile, it is the role of the leader to summarise, openly weigh up the merits and decide on a course of action. That course is then spelt out and clarified beyond all doubt.
From that point forward, all participants are bound by that decision and must give it their wholehearted support whatever their original position. The time for debate is over. Collective responsibility is the price of having your voice heard.
Disagreement, resolution, unity. This is the waltz of decisive action. If you miss the first step, you will stumble on the next two.