Sunday, November 12, 2006


Thoughtful disagreement

"There is no honor like thoughtful disagreement." Thanks for the interesting idea, Diana.

At some point in my career, I realized I was one of the fortunate few - I actually loved my job - as a matter of fact I thrived on it for almost eight years. It started off poorly, though. Before being knighted, I'd watched my boss-to-be climb the hive's ladder to become the imperial queen bee. Over those years, we seldom saw eye-to-eye on things and we usually went our separate ways. I was a low-level drone with no prospects, waiting for a reason to move on. Then an unusual opportunity fell into my lap and very quickly I was riding the crest of a tidal wave of change flowing through the entire apiary including our hive. Within a few years I was knighted into the ranks of this guy's direct reports, with my own areas of responsibility and my own staff.

My new boss was an overbearing hardass who ruled with anger and intimidation, as did his boss, and his bosses' boss, etc. In his mind he was always right, but wanted to make it look like he was "open" to input from his employees, especially his senior staff. So, whenever a major issue came up affecting the hive, he'd gather his "team" into a "round-table discussion". He'd start it off by telegraphing his point of view (and eventual decision) to the group, and then sit back and listen to everybody parrot back their slavish agreement in one form or another. Then he'd "make the final decision."

At first I just lay low in these meetings, keeping my head down while I was figuring out the group dynamics and the general lay of the land, etc. But rather than mimic yes along with everyone else, I usually said little or nothing, unless I actually did agree. One day in a rare mood of benevolence he went around the table one by one, asking each of us what we thought about whatever issue was ripe at the time. When my turn came, I hesitated only a moment before blurting out that I totally disagreed with "whatever" and explained why. The room got real quiet. Barely concealing his surprise, the boss went ahead and announced his decision and ended the meeting. The climate in the comb was pretty chilly for a few days, and I was pointedly left out of his next meeting.

So one afternoon, I stopped by his office on my way out and asked him if he had a minute. I shut the door and told him that I really liked my job and why. But I explained that I believed I could not do my job properly or fairly if I didn't tell him exactly how I felt about issues that affected my particular piece of the turf - good or bad, like it or not. That if he really didn't like hearing what I thought, he should replace me with someone who would agree him instead. I reminded him that I was really doing a great job, helping the beehive to be competetive and profitable, and most importantly what I was doing was making us all look good.

Of course my discussion went against his imperious nature, and I remember he reacted pensively at first. Then he visibly relaxed his guard and explained that he had grown up in the old school and was not used to dealing with employees who openly disagreed with him, but otherwise didn't play games, kiss butt, connive, or try to evade responsibilities. He admitted he didn't like me at first (I didn't remind him it had been mutual), and that his boss had pushed him to promote me, but then he quickly added that he was well aware that I approached my job with a sense of purpose and integrity. He candidly admitted that he had come to respect me and he did not want me to give up on him. He admitted that it wouldn't always be easy.

I realized that I would have to restrain my normally disrespectful and contentious nature. If I wanted to be successful, I would always have to make sure that I if I did not agree with him that I would at least have to disagree thoughtfully.

Diana's comment made me remember this.

Within a few years we had gained a mutual respect for one another and we actually made a strong team. I had become his trusted advisor; eventually we became good friends, and spent much of our free time digesting and debating world events. I always told him exactly what I thought about things, respectfully but directly, and he began to seek out my opinion on most of the issues that came up regardless of whether or not they involved my part of the honeycomb. I had the ability to see the big picture, especially when external challenges came up that affected the whole hive. While everyone else worried about the impacts and details at their levels, I could take a "thousand foot" view, seeing nuances or strategies that would otherwise not be considered. He learned to trust my opinion, in which I made sure I point out all the plusses as well as all the minuses.

As he gradually evolved into a modern manager, some of the rest of his staff caught on and adapted, a few others continued to toady. It probably helped that never once did I have the slightest interest in taking his job. I was happy and successful doing essential work that in its own small way might have made the world a little better.

After eight years, we had become an effective and successful management team (in many ways a model of how our kind of hive should be run). That year was our most productive and profitable ever. Then suddenly we were usurped by an inter-divisional corporate takeover that occurred several levels above our pay grade. Within months my boss took early retirement. I stayed on in a different role for a year or so and then escaped to Argentina on a timely once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that fell into my lap. A few years later I came back to a job in a different layer of the same hive... but now I was once again a drone. My job no longer included changing the system itself, just being a docile and compliant part of it, and I mostly kept my opinions to myself.

Looking back on those years, I realize that I was extremely fortunate to have stumbled upon such a dream job that paid excessively well (thank you, Brand X), where I had lots of responsibility coupled with a lot of freedom to decide how to do my job. I traveled all over the country with occasional trips overseas. I met with Senators and Congressmen. I gave presentations to rooms full of executives. I served on national committees and state commissions. It was all first class in those early years - airlines, hotels, restaurants and rental cars. None of my fellow drones in our hive had anywhere near as much variety and high profile high risk challenges to deal with. No two days were ever alike. I never got bored. Each day offered something new. I thrived on constant adrenaline, always aware of the risks, but confident that I was able to do it well. Even as it was happening, at least I was fortunate enough to realize and appreciate the rarity of that job.

My last five years in that hive gradually became boring, routine, tedious; time slowed down, the long afternoons dragged out in a dull monotony till the end of the workday. But in some bizarre quirk of corporate cubicle-ism, my pay continued to be quite good, so I stuck it out. Until one day I just couldn't stand the deadheadedness any longer, and I bailed out.

Do you remember way back when, dreaming about what you wanted to do with your life? It would have never turned out like this if you had planned it. I love that.
I like this story. Thanks for posting it. It's a great example of "thoughtful disagreement." Interesting also the vacillation between control and lack of control. There's a rhythm to it.
There was indeed a point back then when I felt as if I was really sitting on top of the world - and not just because I live in Alaska. ;)
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