Not too long ago, Tony Sinanis (Hastings-on-Hudson Superintendent) and I presented on 5 Ways to Support a Culture of Learning. One of the main points we discussed is how feedback must be a normalized and welcome part of the learning process. While conversations about feedback generally focus on what feedback is and isn’t, why it’s valuable, and how to give it, during our presentation Tony went out of his way to emphasize the idea of being mindful of how we respond to feedback. For instance, as an administrator, if I’m not accepting of feedback, I shouldn’t expect my teachers to listen to what I (and possibly, their peers) have to say. In other words, I need to model the behavior I want to see in others.
The Oxford Dictionary defines confirmation bias as “The tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one's existing beliefs or theories.”
Confirmation bias (along with other factors, such as insecurity and ego) can prevent us from being accepting of feedback, and to a greater degree, disagreement.
In Creativity, Inc., Ed Catmull (author and President of Pixar) explains how confirmation bias can hinder an organization:
Most of us walk around thinking that our view is best – probably because it is the only one we really know. You’d think the fact that we all have major misunderstandings with people at times – squabbles over what was said or what was meant – would clue us in to the reality that so incredibly much is hidden from us. But, no. We have to learn, over and over again, that the perceptions and experiences of others are vastly different than our own. In a creative environment, those differences can be assets. But when we don’t acknowledge and honor them, they can erode, rather than enrich, our creative work.
5 Stages of Disagreement
Since our presentation, I’ve tried to be more cognizant of how I respond to any type of disagreement. And, based on my experiences (and my mistakes), I’ve mapped out five stages of disagreement. All of the stages, with the exception of the fifth (the “highest”), involve some form of confirmation bias.
When looking at these stages, if you’re self-evaluating, ask yourself, “What is my default reaction to disagreement?” (And then maybe think about whether or not your colleagues would agree with your self-evaluation.)
- “You’re a jerk.” – We get offended by someone disagreeing with us, and we then proceed to go on the attack by criticizing the dissenter’s ideas (or worse, the dissenter as a person). This criticism may take place face-to-face, behind closed doors, on social media, etc. Either way, we’re tearing down our organization’s culture.
- “You’re wrong. I’m right.” – This stage represents a step in the right direction, because now we’re actually considering the dissenter’s ideas in contrast to our own. The only problem is, we’re more concerned with who’s right rather than what’s right. As a result, we blindly defend our ideas simply because they’re ours.
- “I embrace the status quo.” – For the most part, nobody ever comes out and says, “I embrace the status quo,” but this attitude can present itself when we continually go out of our way to rationalize why current practices are superior to any potential changes. After all, it’s easier to wrap our heads around what is, as opposed to what could be.
- “I’ll think about it.” – While “I’ll think about it” may appear elsewhere, here there is truth behind these words. As in, we don’t just use them because we want someone to get off our back; we say them because we’re actually going to contemplate the ideas of others. However, we’re still placing a bit too much value in our own agenda.
- “Tell me more!” – We believe the dissenter’s ideas are equivalent or greater in value than our own, and we show this through our actions. To the greatest extent possible, we’re able to set aside our personal biases, take all factors into consideration, and objectively come to a decision based on what’s right. (Of course, even then, one person’s version of what’s right may be different than someone else’s.)
While the above stages are based on default reactions, we can’t ignore certain factors that can influence how we respond to others. Here are five questions that we may ask ourselves (sometimes, almost subconsciously) when someone disagrees with us:
- Does the dissenter care about me, personally and/or professionally?
- What is the dissenter’s motivation for disagreeing with me?
- Have I been working here longer than the dissenter?
- Does the disagreement involve what I believe is my area of expertise?
- Am I confident enough in my abilities to look “wrong” in front of my peers?
In the End
There is a strong correlation between these five stages and the extent to which one can be considered a learner. And, anyone who is a learner (and therefore, more likely to excel at his or her job) probably defaults to the fourth and fifth stages on a regular basis.
Our thoughts, ideas, and opinions are byproducts of our experiences, and no two experiences are the same. As a result, we all view our work (and the world) through a unique lens. The trick is being able to see through multiples lenses at the same time while not being immune to loosening our grip on the lens that is our own.
What is your default reaction to disagreement?
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