Encouraging Disagreements at Your Workplace could Lead to More Innovations

This dream, however utopian it may sound, is not achievable, if one does not find the adequate support system like an enabling culture, which would encourage an entrepreneurial attitude instead of presenting “what-if-you-fail” scenarios.


When Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple, recently said that Indians lacked creativity, millions of Indians were left shell-shocked. According to Wozniak, it is the “risk-averse culture” which prevents Indians from experimenting and innovating. This audacious claim, though, could be a cause of disagreement, as India prides itself of a vibrant culture even amidst average socio-economic conditions. Nevertheless, it looks like Wozniak has opened the “Pandora’s Box,” which was left untouched in the corporate arena for a long time. In fact, even the Indian tech czar NR Narayana Murthy has lamented this fact a while ago, when he said, “There has not been a single earth-shaking invention from India in the last 60 years that became a household name globally." Creativity, it seems, springs only from an atmosphere of trust, respect, and empowerment. And the question every good Leader need to ask themselves is: am I fostering an atmosphere within my team or Organization, where the freedom of expression is encouraged?

Why there ain’t Freedom of Expression? 

“Cultivating an open environment is tough because people are wired to be conservative,” says James Detert, who specializes in transparent communication in the workplace. Often, employees are not open or candid with their assertions due to fear of reprisals or an indifferent attitude. In fact, this indifferent attitude stems from an atmosphere of tacit workplace bullying. For instance, many managers, psychologically feel strong and good, when their subordinates constantly corroborate their ideas, if not remain passive; however, they quickly feel insecure and resort to passive suppression, even when one of their subordinates express themselves freely and openly. According to research, 44.3% of the corporate workers in India experience or have experienced workplace bullying in one form or the other. 

Moreover, a comparative study conducted on people who avoid conflicts vis-vis people who deal with conflicts found “maintaining interpersonal harmony” as one of the chief reason which prevents people from speaking their mind. This is quite true within the Indian culture, which values relationships more than the task at hand – else, why would one attach little importance to punctuality! This concern for both self and others is quite evident in the way Indians avoid disagreeing with others. Alas, in the pretext of protecting both parties’ face, one ends up sacrificing creativity on the altar of political correctness. But, isn’t such culture supposed to be good and effective?

Can culture be subservient to our goals?

“A nation's culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people; culture of the mind must be subservient to the heart,” said Mahatma Gandhi, the father of India. No tool or institution can ever be useful or said to have achieved its purpose if it does not aid in the development of the individual or society which adopts them. While one’s culture can be multifaceted and centuries-old, it needs to evolve with changing times to redefine the goals of its existence. Youngsters of today’s India are more ambitious and full of energy and ideas to experiment. They look forward to working in an environment, where they can bounce innovative ideas with their peers rather than getting stumped by a cultural bouncer – self-proclaimed custodians of a culture. 

This dream, however utopian it may sound, is not achievable, if one does not find the adequate support system like an enabling culture, which would encourage an entrepreneurial attitude instead of presenting “what-if-you-fail” scenarios. An enabling culture is one which would promote an individual to be risk-taking and take independent decisions, while at the same time pushing them to be inter-dependent by making them consider the opinion of experts or their loved ones. And the ultimate test of the efficacy of such culture is its ability to stand alongside that individual, post their independent decision – for either good or bad.

Can disagreements ever be better than saving the face?

Joel Garfinkle, an executive coach and author of Difficult Conversations, recently wrote, “while it’s natural to want to be liked, that’s not always the most important thing.” He goes on to say that instead of trying to increase your likability, focus on respect — both giving it and earning it. Typically, human beings are wired to look good, always – if not, why would mirrors sell like hot cakes! However, instead of focusing on the self-image, if one places the welfare of the business or the community they are part of foremost, not only would they appear less selfish but also bring about a positive change or two in the working conditions or business model.

Unfortunately, many rarely – or lately – realize that disagreement is the only true wellspring of creative ideas. In fact, disagreement is the hotbed of innovations and a place where meaningful relationships blossom. The creativity of an individual as well as the productivity of the Organization suffers when employees feel they do not have a stake in co-creating the future of their company. Also, when a manager surrounds himself with a team which thinks and speaks in a similar wavelength, there is hardly any scope for diversity of thought and inclusivity. Consequently, this would only make one look rather predictable, as highlighted by Wozniak, and lose the much-needed competitive advantage. 

Steps to foster an atmosphere of creativity:

•  Often, schedule one-on-one informal conversations with your team members, where they are supposed to discuss workplace challenges only, which prevents them from being productive.

•  During official team meetings, encourage or induce every team member to contribute to the discussion and ensure you appreciate when one gets candid.

•  When someone shares a futile idea during the team meeting, instead of ignoring the idea, be assertive and say, “thank you for sharing your idea; let us hear what others have to say.”

•  When someone articulates a lot of unique ideas, instead of just saying “hey, great idea,” provide them with a “Jealousy Cover” that would protect them from prying eyes in your team and a “Convenient Platform,” where they can nurture those ideas.

•  When someone turns up to the office with a whacky hairstyle or a belly-button, do not let your opinion about their lifestyle cloud your professional judgement, particularly while evaluating their performance or words.

•  Provide a sense of autonomy to your team members, by allowing them to take independent decisions at least in all low-stake activities.

•  Include variety in your team by hiring people with differences in experience, educational background, geography, sexual orientation, etc. 

•  Practice “reverse mentoring” regularly, where you learn something new from your subordinates.

•  Ensure there are enough formal, informal, and confidential avenues within your organization and team, where people can express their voice freely without any fear of judgement or reprisal.

•  Finally, employees should get to experience – and participate – in a culture, where they are rewarded for challenging the existing status-quo, policies, procedures, when appropriate.

Understandably, this article could have left some of the readers squirming in their chairs. Anyhow, one need to learn to agree – to disagree – to foster an atmosphere of creativity. In fact, disagreements — when managed well — have lots of positive outcomes like increased productivity, improved relationships, and inclusive work environment. Martin Luther King Jr, dreamed of a future, where his children wouldn’t be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. It is high time, Indian corporates too deal sternly with prejudices like age, experience, gender, status, etc. in order to transform themselves into powerhouses of creativity and innovations. Let freedom ring from the sleek steel and glass buildings of the Indian corporate offices.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house


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