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Disagreements are a fact of life, not just for the person on the street but also for top executives in large corporations. Even the most experienced and knowledgeable senior managers can have strongly opposing views about the wisest course of action for an organization, particularly when those individuals come from different backgrounds or corporate cultures. Consider the mix of senior leadership values in rapid major bank roll-ups such as Citigroup Inc. (Salomon Brothers, Smith Barney, Travellers and Citibank) or JP Morgan Chase & Co. (Chase Manhattan, Chemical Bank, Manufacturers Hanover, Bank One and First Chicago). Indeed, in the face of relentless pressure from competitors, increasing scrutiny from the investment community and growing uncertainty about firm strategy, differences of opinion are commonplace. But what effect do these differences and disagreements have on the management team, on its decisions and, ultimately, on the organization itself?
To begin, it’s important to recognize that disagreements are not a simple commodity, like sand, which can be lumped together and weighed on a scale. In reality, disagreements come in all shapes and sizes and occur between individuals, between individuals and groups and between groups themselves. Some disagreements, usually those centered on how best to approach a particular task, are beneficial to decision making and to the team itself because they surface flawed assumptions, expose concealed gaps in information and force debate of alternate approaches, thus providing an opportunity for better understanding. Other disagreements, especially those that are emotional or personal in nature, are detrimental because they produce resentment, interrupt working relationships and restrict the flow of information, resulting in the isolation of people and the rejection of alternative ideas.
It’s also important to note that disagreements can be either real or perceived. That is, some conflicts are just what they seem to be, while others arise from misunderstandings or simple differences in perception. Yet, even when the actual conflict is slight, if people perceive it as major then the potential for escalation can be substantial.
Finally, with respect to top management teams, it’s important to keep in mind that the members aren’t all on equal footing. Even within a group of powerful executives, the CEO is typically on a higher level, with greater authority as the team leader. Consequently, any disagreement involving the CEO can take on added significance and represent a different dynamic.
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8. Anne Mulcahy, interview with Kai Ryssdal, American Public Media, April 21, 2006. Transcript available at http://marketplace.publicradio.org/segments/corneroffice/corner_mulcahy_transcript.html.
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10. Speech given by Anne Mulcahy at the University of Connecticut, Stamford, on April 1, 2005.
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