Disagree and Commit

In 2017, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos sent the following letter to shareholders in regard to an Amazon Studios original production:


"I disagree and commit all the time. I told the team my view: 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 they 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 ... but they also know when to trust their teams' gut. They're willing to take calculated risks by trusting their inner circle. By putting their ego aside, leaders create a growth-minded environment by growing the confidence of their followers.

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We utilize disagree and commit in our district, as we believe this approach ensures all voices are heard, resulting in better decisions.


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" created when everyone sees the person with the most influence in the room wants and follows suit. 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 has expressed an opinion that differs from your own.


Once everyone has revealed their choice, the leader must take the group's feedback and make a decision. If the vote is not close, 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.


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Utilizing a disagree and commit philosophy may sound easy, but some leaders struggle when their team shares a different opinion than their own. When a boss finds themselves on the losing end of a debate, they 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 summer 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 have a bad habit of dying on a hill that does not matter in the big scheme of things. Going into a decision with a disagree and commit philosophy helps leaders come to terms with outcomes that don't go their way. Saying, "I disagree but will commit to the decision" to your team has a unique way of softening the blow to the ego, while also earning the respect of colleagues.


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Next time you have an important decision to make, consider implementing the disagree and commit philosophy. Not only will you ensure all voices are heard, you increase your chances of making the right decision.

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