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Associations Now

Disagreement Is a Leadership Trait

ASSOCIATIONS NOW, July 2013 Leadership

By: David M. Patt, CAE

Summary: Why associations need to cultivate conflict. [Titled "Care to Disagree" in the print edition.]

Conformity is far too pervasive in the association community.

Our colleagues often try to avoid saying or doing anything somebody else might not like. Appearing contrary, they fear, implies they are not team players. They worry that it may prevent them from earning respect, speaking at conferences, serving on boards or committees, or landing new jobs.

I recall one committee meeting of association executives who were crafting an educational schedule. A member suggested a topic others didn't think was appropriate. Glances were exchanged. Eyes rolled. But nobody said anything. So an inappropriate topic got on the schedule.

This behavior baffles me. Diversity of opinion is normal. What's the chance that everybody will agree about everything all the time? Critique, discussion, and debate should be viewed as helpful tools for creating sound policies and programs. Instead, participants strive for unanimity.

I know of one civic organization whose board didn't know how to proceed after casting its first split vote. The chair correctly stated that majority rules, but one board member suggested a revote to make the decision unanimous. Why? Those who disagreed weren't undermining the group. They merely thought it wasn't a good idea. Why should their opposition be hidden?

Here's the real problem: Most people don't want to be different. They don't want to risk being thought of as unwise or unprofessional or less than competent. They want to be accepted and get along with everybody else. So they conform.

But conformity can stunt association growth and innovation. New ideas must be raised and discussed, and that means conflict and disagreement are inevitable. But in my experience, that conflict will probably be very polite. Colleagues are likely to phrase their comments ever so diplomatically, hoping the originator of an idea will pick up their hints and make desirable changes.

So don't be shy about disagreeing, even if you are the only person holding a contrary view. Want to change the culture? Don't back down on an issue just to avoid conflict. Always be nice when you're disagreeing, but never apologize for disagreeing. Criticize ideas, not people. And have something more than a complaint: Explain how you believe a different idea or way of doing things can be successful.

Last, exude confidence as you do all this. With any luck, it may embolden your peers.

David M. Patt, CAE, is owner of Association Executive Management, where he contracts with a management company to serve as executive director of the Society of Correctional Physicians and the Academy of Correctional Health Professionals. Email:

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  Andrea Rouse , July 31, 2013
Very empowering piece.

Agreeing to disagree and learning to disagree confidently are tough skills for some people to master. However I agree with this article in that it is absolutely necessary to learn how to do so--in both professional and personal settings.

Excellent topic. Thanks!
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  Pamela Green , July 11, 2013
David, excellent article. I wrote a complimentary blog about it this morning: I disagree with you David only slightly and it has to do with your statement “Most people don’t want to be different.” I believe most people are screaming to be different, they just don’t want their difference to be held against them. Instead of fighting for their ideas and opinions to be heard, they fall in line like good soldiers and keep their thoughts and ideas to themselves. It’s not that they don’t want to be different, it’s just safer this way. Thanks for raising this issues, it continues even after all these years.


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