"You're Entirely Wrong About Everything." How to Disagree Respectfully.
Some people are nice co-workers. Other people firmly insist on getting to the right decision. The intersection of nice people who firmly insist on making the right decisions are highly valuable.
Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit is an important leadership principle at Amazon. It's a big part of how Amazon gets stuff done.
It is also a cultural element in why Amazon is often viewed as a tough place to work. "You need tough skin to work at Amazon" I've heard more than once.
And you probably do need tough skin. Because being right is a leadership principle, and being nice isn't. I mean, there's a new leadership principle which mentions empathy, but it hasn't really entered the DNA. Many people still enter a debate with, "You're wrong, and here's why."
However, I've always thought that disagreeing respectfully is a valuable skill. Every time you disagree while making someone angry, you're burning bridges. You're trading being right for building a relationship.
Instead, I think it's possible to disagree while building a relationship. You can have a debate with respect. You can use information, questions, and priorities to help your team collectively arrive at the right answer. All without being a jerk.
Why you should disagree.
In case you're not convinced that disagreeing is desired, here are a few things to think about.
Disagree to help people learn.
If people don't know why they're wrong, how will they ever improve? Similarly, how will you improve if you don't state your opinion and be willing to be wrong?
Disagree to keep things efficient.
If you waste time entertaining a clearly bad idea, you're throwing away resources and everyone's time to pander to someone's ego.
Disagree to get to the right answer.
Here's the most important one. Everyone has a set of information, things they've learned, goals, and other information which are all ingredients in their decision-making. You need everyone to air those disagreements to realize what you, and they, are missing.
Too much social cohesion.
During my relatively short time at Facebook, I found the cultural differences between Amazon and Facebook fascinating. Some things from Facebook I loved (and tried to bring to Amazon). Others didn't feel quite right.
Perhaps a month or two in, I attended a meeting. We had a number of relatively senior engineers in the meeting, and a few managers. The meeting's purpose was for a junior engineer to explain a proposal to the team. To be clear, the actual proposal was different from what I'm explaining below, but of the same quality.
I grabbed one of the last chairs in the conference room and sat down. I was surprised at the number of people attending the meeting. If I'd read the meeting invite correctly, the meeting was requested by Colin, a junior engineer in the organization, to review a proposal they had for a change to our product.
I appreciated the idea of Colin trying to propose product changes, but it felt like a pretty expensive meeting for what was likely to be a dead end. I had managed engineers for a couple of decades. They're great at coding, but are not frequently product rock stars.
The meeting started, and Colin started his PowerPoint. I internally groaned. After too many years at Amazon, the idea of a PowerPoint presentation felt gross. I mean, PowerPoint has various uses. However, I was convinced that product proposals deserved a document. In my couple of months at Facebook, I'd already seen a few flashy but substanceless presentations. It made me uncomfortable. But not many people at Facebook knew how to write documents. And it wasn't a cultural priority.
Colin explained that many customers don't click on external ads because they're either below the fold (you need to scroll to see them), or they become mentally blind to the images scrolling past their screen.
He said that we should change how ads work in feeds. If a customer stopped scrolling in their feeds for a period of time, we could automatically click on the ads for them. He said it would increase our ad click-through rate, and our advertisers would love it.
I was dumbfounded. I didn't expect a groundbreaking idea, but this was utter crap. Looking around the room, I expected to see other looks of disbelief. Instead, many heads were nodding sagely.
"That's a very interesting idea!" said one manager.
"Yes, thanks so much for bringing it up! It gives us a lot to think about." said another manager.
I was baffled. I couldn't imagine a world in which this was a good idea, or one worth considering. Why were they not saying anything?
I finally spoke up. "What about the potential backlash from customers who had no intention to go to an ad's website?"
I glanced at my manager, and he was firmly shaking his head, giving a not subtle message to shut up. I was confused.
Colin muttered something about how customers probably didn't care because they were already idle. Everyone nodded in response, thanked Colin, and the meeting ended shortly afterward.
As soon as possible, I pulled my manager to the side.
"What the heck just went on?" I exclaimed, confused. "That idea was terrible, right? Completely horrible? I'm not crazy?"
He nodded. "Oh yeah, you're right. It'll never happen. It's just in Facebook's culture to support people, so we needed to make him feel good."
I shook my head, "But the idea was terrible. A dozen smart and expensive people just sat there, and didn't even explain to him that it's a bad idea?"
"But we're not Amazon, we're a social network. It's more important that we maintain social cohesion than be right." he explained. "He'll eventually realize it's a bad idea when no one helps him work on his project."
"So you're saying that the feedback he'll get is a passive-aggressive response of no one volunteering to help him, and he'll just figure out that he should move on?" I shook my head in disbelief.
'That's about it."
I'm reasonably confident that the majority of Facebook (Meta now) doesn't work this way (before my Meta friends get defensive). But it's an extreme example of what can happen if people are afraid to rock the boat.
I don't know what happened to Colin, but I sincerely hope that someone had the guts to explain to him why his idea was terrible.