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Grab this sacred cow by the horns

Recently I ran a board-paper writing course for senior technology people in finance. 

It reminded me of a sacred cow you need to grab by the horns. This:

‘Avoid conflict at all costs.’ 


Don’t get me wrong; the group weren’t shrinking violets; they were heavy hitters. But hearing their experiences running projects in large organisations made me realise confronting issues (read: ‘people’) earlier and more often can save a lot of grief. 

Naturally, your social brain hates conflict. But ‘going dark’ isn’t what moves a business or relationship forward. 

And avoiding conflict can lead to groupthink, blinding you to problems that other parties, like your board, will see instantly, e.g. in your board paper. 

Groupthink is also on company directors’ radars: 42 percent of directors say counteracting groupthink is their biggest challenge

Alfred P Sloan, the President & Chairman of General Motors summed it up: 

‘If we are all in agreement on the decision—then I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.’ 

Why boards say no


Here’s the rub:

  1. Decisions are made via board and committee papers.
  2. They go through endless drafts (sometimes 30 or more), wasting huge amounts of time and resources.
  3. No one wants to ‘own’ anything; everything is written in passive voice (‘It is suggested that …’).
  4. No one wants to challenge what more senior people than them have written. 

Despite all the effort, or maybe because of it, the multiple people writing, editing and changing them often weaken the original idea beyond recognition.

Frustratingly, boards then miss the point, and the opportunity. The idea is muddy, so they say no. 

The team is then back to Square One: rewrite, redraft, and wait ANOTHER THREE MONTHS until the next board meeting.

That’s not agile business. It’s snail pace. 

Fixing this involves several issues. But a big one—the Sacred Cow of avoiding conflict—is learning how to disagree

How to disagree


If someone’s idea sucks, or how they wrote it does, try these:

  1. Talk, don’t write: Giving negative feedback in writing feels safe and fast. But it’s false economy. Talking face to face is best to avoid misunderstandings. As Stephen Covey said, ‘With people, slow is fast, and fast is slow.’
  2. Be diplomatic: Use ‘soft’ language, e.g. ‘Hey, I could be wrong, but it seems to me that X, Y and Z. What’s your perspective?’ Then REALLY listen: for the facts (left brain) and feelings (right brain).
  3. Find something good to say: The sh!t sandwich works, if you’re genuine about the good you mention. The main thing is for the person to feel you have their best interests at heart.
  4. Suggest baby steps: In persuasion, a ‘low-risk offer’ can work wonders. Can you suggest a small change, trial or pilot of your idea? E.g. ‘Why don’t we try XYZ as well, and see what [neutral third party] thinks?’

These might not kill that sacred cow, but you might get some milk from it! 

What do you think? Got any other tips? Please share your gold in the comments. 

And if you disagree with me … take that bull by the horns and fire away!



Paul & the Magneto/Credosity Crew  

P.S. Here’s a great TED Talk: Dare to Disagree – why it’s critical that you disagree with others to find a better way forward. 

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