In 2017, Jeff Bezos sent a letter to shareholders in which he discussed one of the leadership principles he utilized as Amazon's CEO. The following is an excerpt of that letter:
"I disagree and commit all the time. I told the (Amazon Studios) team my view (on a project): debatable whether it would be interesting enough, complicated to produce, the business terms aren't that good, and we have lots of other opportunities. They had a completely different opinion and wanted to go ahead. I wrote back right away with 'I disagree and commit and hope it becomes the most watched thing we've ever made.'"
Disagree and commit is a management principle which states that individuals are allowed to disagree while a decision is being made, but once a decision is finalized, everybody must commit to its success.
A lot of school leaders claim to use "collaborative decision-making," but don't practice what they preach. Stubborn and arrogant, these leaders undermine projects that weren't their idea and refuse to support proposals outside their comfort zone.
Effective leaders know when to trust their gut ... and also know when to trust their teams' gut. They're willing to take calculated risks and trust their staff. By putting their pride aside, leaders cultivate employee confidence and establish a united workplace.
We utilize disagree and commit in our district, as we believe better decisions are made when all voices are heard. One of the best places to see this method in action are district leadership team meetings.
Our district leadership team is made up building administrators and district directors - about 15 employees. During these meetings, we often discuss logistical and managerial topics impacting the entire school district.
When the district leadership team needs to make a difficult decision, we follow the disagree and commit protocol by encouraging all team members to voice their perspective on the topic, even if those opinions differ from the group. Once everyone shares their thoughts, we consider if we are nearing consensus or if more data needs to be collected.
When a decision is imminent, we ask the group to use the "turn & learn" approach. Notecards are handed to each group member where they are asked to record their "vote." Once everyone has written an opinion in private, we count to three and reveal our answers.
This practice controls the "halo effect" - which happens when everyone looks to the person in the room with the most influence and follows their lead. It also controls the "bandwagon effect" - the natural tendency to follow suit even when you disagree. It's tough to be the last to share when everyone expresses an opinion that differs from your own.
Once everyone has revealed their choice, the leader takes the group's feedback and make a decision. If the vote is lopsided, the leader has an easy choice. If the vote is close, the leader must break the deadlock.
Disagree and commit is crucial when the ruling goes against the opinion of group members - which could include the leader. Once a determination is made, the group is reminded of their responsibility to publicly support the decision, regardless of personal sentiment.
Utilizing a disagree and commit philosophy may sound easy, but some leaders struggle when their team shares a difference of opinion. Bosses who finds themselves on the losing end of a debate must show humility by publicly endorsing the "other" plan.
As a district leader, I have found myself on the short end of disagree and commit decisions several times. Here are a few recent examples:
Spring Break: I believe school districts need a spring break for a variety of reasons - if nothing else to give staff a much-needed "mental health" break during second semester. However, our district has a long-standing tradition of no spring break. When I floated this topic with district leaders, they were firm in wanting to continue with current practice.
Professional Development: Hoping to provide district directors with professional development, I planned to have them read two (short) books over the summer. But when I shared my thoughts with the group, I could tell they were uneasy. As the directors outlined their busy summer work schedule - it became clear they already had plenty on their plate.
COVID Protocols: Early during the COVID pandemic, a group of teachers organized a socially-distanced community parade. I was happy to support their cause as I believed the event would be great for families. However, as the date neared there were growing safety concerns within our leadership team. As team members shared their opinions, it was clear the parade needed to be cancelled.
Reflecting on these examples, I now realize they were relatively small decisions. However - in the heat of the decision-making moment - they felt like big deals. My feelings were hurt because others did not share my opinions. I recall being in a bad mood hours after a verdict had been reached.
Some leaders get hung up on small details when really they need to be focused on the bigger picture. Going into a decision with a disagree and commit philosophy helps leaders come to terms with outcomes that don't go their way. Telling your team, "I disagree but will commit to the decision" has a unique way of softening the blow to the ego, while earning the respect of colleagues.
Understanding how to make difficult decisions is one of the most complicated aspects of school leadership. On one hand, leaders who make decisions in isolation run the risk of creating division amongst staff and increase the likelihood that employees disregard marching orders. On the other hand, leaders who require unanimous support on a decision before moving forward waste valuable time and energy - assuming a decision is finally reached.
But shying away from difficult decisions is not the answer. School leaders who seek meaningful change must develop the skills to guide productive discussions with employees. When properly executed, disagree and commit generates high levels of buy-in for leaders looking to streamline the decision-making process.