How to Handle Conflict: Disagree and Commit [Lessons from Amazon & ‘The Bezos Way’]

How Amazon’s Jeff Bezos Propels Innovation

Entrepreneurial Lessons from Amazon Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos Amazon’s founder and CEO Jeff Bezos once remarked that it takes five to seven years before the innovation seeds that Amazon plants flourish enough to have a significant impact on the economics of the business.

Since its founding in 1994, Amazon has made endless investments in expanding its business models. It has successfully used its money-making ventures to bankroll explorations into peripheral lines of business. Many of its capital allocation decisions haven’t yielded strong profits; yet, Amazon has flourished beyond everyone’s expectations and its growth potential is undeniable.

Central to this innovation strategy has been Bezos and his leadership team’s foresight, early commitment, and stubborn confidence in the prospect of R&D. Under Bezos’s direction and long-term focus, Amazon still operates as a founder-driven start-up in several major areas.

Bezos has a compelling cultural influence and has institutionalized his distinctive entrepreneurial mindset across the company. His core values are codified as Amazon’s 14 Leadership Principles, one of which is “Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit”:

Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.

“Disagree and Commit”

Jeff Bezos’s latest short-but-compelling annual letter to his shareholders contains pearls of wisdom on leadership, management, and teamwork. Read the letter; it won’t take long.

Speaking about high-velocity decision making in an ingenious culture, Bezos says he encourages Amazon’s leaders and employees to use the phrase “disagree and commit” to disagree respectfully and experiment with ideas:

Use the phrase “disagree and commit.” This phrase will save a lot of time. If you have conviction on a particular direction even though there’s no consensus, it’s helpful to say, “Look, I know we disagree on this but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?” By the time you’re at this point, no one can know the answer for sure, and you’ll probably get a quick yes.

This isn’t one way. If you’re the boss, you should do this too. I disagree and commit all the time. We recently greenlit a particular Amazon Studios original. 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.” Consider how much slower this decision cycle would have been if the team had actually had to convince me rather than simply get my commitment.

Note what this example is not: it’s not me thinking to myself “well, these guys are wrong and missing the point, but this isn’t worth me chasing.” It’s a genuine disagreement of opinion, a candid expression of my view, a chance for the team to weigh my view, and a quick, sincere commitment to go their way. And given that this team has already brought home 11 Emmys, 6 Golden Globes, and 3 Oscars, I’m just glad they let me in the room at all!

Entrepreneurial Lessons from Amazon Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos: Disagree and Commit Bezos’s “fail-and-learn” refrain echoes what he wrote on risk-taking in Amazon’s first annual shareholder letter in 1997: “Given a 10 percent chance of a 100-times payout, you should take that bet every time … Failure and invention are inseparable twins. To invent you have to experiment, and if you know in advance that it’s going to work, it’s not an experiment.” That letter has become Amazon’s manifesto on the benefits and methods to long-term thinking and Bezos quotes that letter in every year’s annual letter.

To “disagree and commit” compels people to step out of their comfort zones and to sincerely commit to a project’s success. There is no room for sabotage and disruption—neither can people wait in the wings to exclaim “I told you so.” To “disagree and commit” is to be willing to take prudent risks by acknowledging that others may have diverse beliefs, approaches, ideas, and styles.

Idea for Impact: Embrace Failure because it Leads to Innovation

Many people want to be curious, creative, and experimental—they like to take initiative and investigate new products and solutions. But, when facing difficult choices, they’re naturally afraid of what they don’t know. Self-doubt sets in. They resort to safe and predictable processes. This mindset stifles the very inventive approach they want to apply and foster.

Fear of failure and self-doubt are not usually rooted in facts. They’re emotional. Don’t let this emotion make you play it safe. Don’t overthink your way out of challenges. Understand the types and amounts of risks that are acceptable to you. When facing the prospect of failure, you’re more likely to get unstuck by trying low-risk actions. Experiment. Fail. Learn. Innovate.

Success may instill confidence, but failure imparts wisdom.

How to Decline a Meeting Invitation

Meetings Suck

How to Decline a Meeting InvitationIt’s not without reason that everybody gripes about meetings. Meetings distract people from meaningful work.

However, when purposefully conceived and efficiently run, meetings are not wasteful. Meetings are important instruments of organizational endeavor—they provide a chance to pull resources together for communication and decision-making. There are, therefore, only two serviceable objectives of a meeting:

  1. To inform and update
  2. To seek input and make collective decisions

Participating Effectively in Meetings

Participate in a meeting only if the agenda includes something important, timely, and worthwhile for you.

Ask the following questions to decide if you need to participate in a meeting:

  1. Has the meeting been well-defined? Do you have all the information you need to decide if you need to attend this meeting? Are the purpose and agenda of the meeting clear? Do you have the relevant background material? Are all the relevant participants invited?
  2. How will you benefit from this meeting?
  3. Is the decision being made at this meeting important to the success or failure of your team / organization?
  4. Does the meeting really need you? In other words, will your presence influence the discussions and the expected outcomes?

How to Politely Decline a Meeting Invitation

How to Politely Decline a Meeting InvitationIf you’re been invited to attend a meeting that you think is avoidable, try to persuade the meeting’s leader that your productive time may be better used elsewhere. Share your rationale so that the meeting’s leader has some context for why you’re not participating. Here’s how to decline the meeting:

  • “May I send somebody else to fill in for me?” Find a delegate who could represent your interests.
  • “May I suggest somebody else?” Propose other participants if the items on the meeting’s agenda are not within the purview of your role, or if you don’t have the expertise and authority to impact the conversation and the decision-making.
  • “May I provide my inputs in advance?” Take some time to review the agenda items, do your homework, organize your remarks or inputs, and brief the meeting leader or other participants beforehand.
  • “May I participate in the most relevant segment of the meeting?” If one or more items on the meeting agenda aren’t relevant to your goals, attend just those parts of the meeting that are applicable. Consider asking, “Could you please move my agenda item to the top of the meeting? I can’t stay for the whole meeting.”
  • “Could you please postpone this meeting?” Or, “May I skip this week’s update … I am still working on my task. Therefore, I am not yet ready for a productive conversation yet or give you a status-update.”
  • “I am sorry, given my department’s goals for this year, I don’t find this meeting helpful.” Request a summary of the meeting and follow-up as needed.

The key to saying “no” to a meeting is to say it decisively without appearing to be dodging your responsibilities. Make a deliberate effort to meet the needs of all the meeting’s participants.

Idea for Impact: Don’t Become Hostage to Meetings

Being in too many meetings can wreak havoc on your schedule and pinch your ability to focus on larger, more-worthwhile goals. Just go to all the ones you absolutely need to, and delegate or curtail your participation in the rest.

Adapt to Your Boss’s Style: Cases from Andy Grove and Steve Ballmer’s Expectations in Meetings

Andy Grove’s Meeting Style at Intel

Andy Grove's Meeting Style at Intel Intel’s former Chairman and CEO Andy Grove (1936–2016) was known for his brash management style. He habitually resorted to fear as a management technique. In an effort to aggressively pursue the right answers, he devoted his focus to facts and data, as I wrote in my article on lessons from the Intel Pentium integer bug disaster.

In meetings, Grove expected his employees to be self-willed, clear-sighted, and obstinate. Grove wrote in his autobiography / management primer Only the Paranoid Survive (1996,) “Don’t sit on the sidelines waiting for senior people to make a decision so that you can later criticize them over a beer.”

With an “in-your-face” interpersonal style, Grove bellicosely challenged his interlocutors and called his meetings “constructive confrontations.” In contrast, his executives recalled them as “Hungarian inquisitions” in reference to his childhood in Hungary under Nazi and Communist regimes.

Recalling Grove’s technique for meetings, one executive said, “If you went into a meeting, you’d better have your data; you’d better have your opinion; and if you can’t defend your opinion, you have no right to be there.” In pursuit of accuracy and rationality, Grove would rip his employees’ ideas to shreds even while they were still on the first page of their carefully prepared presentations.

Steve Ballmer’s Meeting Style at Microsoft

Steve Ballmer's Meeting Style at Microsoft Another case in point is how Steve Ballmer conducted meetings. For most of his career as Microsoft’s CEO, Ballmer expected his employees to deliver a presentation he hadn’t seen before, take the “long and winding road” of discovery and exploration, and then arrive at the conclusion. This allowed Microsoft employees to expose Ballmer analytically to all their contemplations and postulations before steering him to their conclusions.

Years later, Ballmer reflected that this meeting style wasn’t efficient because, as a high-energy person, he couldn’t bear longwinded narratives and grew impatient for the conclusions. Ballmer changed his expectations of meetings and required employees to send him the presentation materials in advance. He would read them and directly venture into questions, asking for data and supporting evidence only if needed. This gave him greater focus in meetings.

Idea for Impact: Attune to Your Boss’s Communication Style

As I’ve discussed in previous articles, your ability to work well with others can mean the difference in whether your career progresses or stalls. To advance professionally, it’s particularly important that you have a good working relationship with your immediate supervisor.

Attune to Your Boss's Communication Style Bosses, like all people, differ greatly in their capacities and communication styles. You and your boss may be reasonably compatible or you may have entirely different communication preferences, temperaments, and styles. Regardless, you need to achieve a beneficial and cordial way of working with your boss.

Invest time and energy in understanding how your boss works, her ambitions and goals, her priorities, her strengths and weaknesses, the specificity she expects from your projects and decisions, her hot buttons, and her flash points.

Accommodate your boss’s work style. Discuss communication preferences and seek feedback. Be flexible. Ask questions to clarify what you don’t understand.

The Curse of Teamwork: Groupthink

The Curse of Teamwork: Groupthink

Many teams tend to compromise their decisions for the sake of consensus, harmony, and “esprit de corps.” The result is often a lowest-common-denominator decision upon which everybody in the team agrees. This predisposition for a team to minimize conflict and value conformity is the psychological phenomenon of Groupthink.

'Victims of Groupthink' by Irving Janis (ISBN 0395317045) In the 1970s, American psychologist Irving Janis defined Groupthink as “a mode of thinking that people engage in when deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.” Janis argued that Groupthink “undermines critical analysis, legitimizes ignorance, reinforces collective biases, and promotes a group self-image of infallibility.”

Negative Effects of Groupthink in Teamwork

Teams are prone to Groupthink and a variety of other detrimental decision-making approaches, but are seldom aware of it.

  • Groupthink suppresses dissent Individuals resign to group pressure, thereby conforming their opinions to a decision that they believe will achieve consensus. Groupthink discourages dissenters from “rocking the boat.” Over time, nonconformists are gradually shunted aside or excluded from the team altogether.
  • Groupthink engenders self-censorship. Individuals who disagree with the chosen course of action remain silent because they reason they cannot change others’ minds. Consequently, the team tends to focus its discussions on ideas that everyone agrees about rather than ideas that everyone disagrees about.
  • Groupthink gives team members greater confidence in their collective decisions than their individual decisions. Therefore, Groupthink leads individuals to publicly endorse ideas and decisions that they view as common for the group, even if they personally have reservations about them.
  • Groupthink stifles creativity and independent thinking. When individuals are unwilling to bring up and confront difficult issues, the team fails to examine alternative viewpoints that could be contentious. This leads to irrational and flawed decisions.

Antidote to Groupthink in Teamwork

Negative Effects of Groupthink in Teamwork An awareness of Groupthink and other group dynamic biases combined with some hands-on intervention, self-reflection, and control can help teams make better decisions.

  • Create an organizational environment where individuals can freely voice their ideas, challenges, and concerns. Individuals must feel comfortable with taking interpersonal risks, admitting hesitations, and challenging one-another. Absent an inclination to avoid conflict, a team can easily discuss and debate different perspectives.
  • Think about the right information required to make sound decisions. Consider the strongest counter-argument to every idea.
  • Do not suppress disagreements or dominate the dissenters. Carefully examine the reasons and implications of alternate viewpoints.
  • Divide a team into sub-teams or partnerships and set each sub-team to work on a problem independently. Encourage them to take into account the plusses and the minuses of each idea.
  • Designate one team member as a devil’s advocate to argue enthusiastically against all contemplated ideas. This can force the team to discuss and debate the concomitant merits and demerits of different ideas. In Edward De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats process (see my book summary), the devil’s advocate wears the “black hat.”
  • Invite outside consultants and subject-matter experts to discuss key issues and review decisions.
  • Appoint a moderator who can engage the team collectively and individually by gathering all points of view, giving feedback, and challenging the team’s thinking. Ideally, the moderator should be an independent third party who can be comprehensive and forthright.
  • Step back regularly from the team’s deliberation process to reflect on the effectiveness of the team’s decision-making and intervene where necessary. In the Six Thinking Hats process, De Bono suggests adding reflection time at the end of each meeting to analyze the process’ effectiveness.

Idea for Impact: Sometimes, Teamwork is Overrated

Don’t get me wrong: teamwork can be very powerful, but only when teams consist of individuals who have the right expertise and who are willing to voice their forthright opinions, dissent, and build consensus. Avoid teamwork when one person or a partnership with complementary skills and styles may achieve identical objectives.

To prevent Groupthink, establish an environment where speaking up is encouraged and rewarded. Welcome disagreements, avoid dominating dissenters, and contemplate the strongest counter-argument to every idea.

Avoid the Lectern in Presentations

Avoid the Lectern in Presentations

Standing behind a lectern while presenting can make you seem stiff, unemotional, and disconnected. A lectern creates a barrier between you and your audience—it not only blocks out two-thirds of your body, but also restricts your natural hand gestures. The lectern may even entice you to lean on or hold it, making you look tense and uneasy.

By walking around the room and getting closer to your audience, you establish a bigger presence in the room and are harder to ignore. You encourage your audience to move their heads and eyes to follow you around the room, so they’re less likely to doze off during your presentation. Your watchful eyes may also prevent them from using their tablets and phones.

Walking about can make your presentation appear like a natural conversation and thus help you overcome any public speaking anxiety. You can also better gauge your audience’s reactions.

  • Always present standing up, even if you’re presenting to an audience of one or two. Standing while presenting not only lets you make better eye contact with your audience, but also helps you breathe and project your voice more clearly. You will appear to have more influence since your audience will be literally “looking up to you.”
  • Move around naturally. Mix it up to avoid looking nervous. Don’t always walk from the front to the back or from side to side.
  • Make your movements look relaxed and confident. Do not tap your foot, rock, sway, swing, or dance on the spot. Don’t try anything over-the-top, dramatic, or flashy.
  • Keep an open posture at all times; avoid crossing your arms or creating a symbolic barrier between you and the audience. Use hand gestures selectively for emphasis—do not gesture so much that your body language poses a distraction.
  • Stop moving and pause briefly after making each important point. As I mentioned in a previous article, pauses can help you emphasize your message and gather your next thoughts. In addition, the audience gets a chance to absorb your point.
  • When responding to a question, move closer to the person who asked the question.

Idea for Impact: When presenting, walk around the room naturally and interact with your audience. Moving around the room not only helps you keep eye contact with the audience, but also emphasizes an air of confidence, openness, and authority. You’ll also look more conversational, interesting, and memorable.

Stop asking, “What do you do for a living?”

How to Start a Good Conversation

I despise being asked “What do you do for a living?” when I first meet someone.

I didn’t like being asked “What does your dad do?” while growing up in India.

Many people routinely use this question as a conversation-starter with strangers. It could be argued that they intend to inoffensively learn of somebody’s area of expertise or interests and then engage them in a meaningful chat.

Stop asking 'What do you do for a living?' about indirectly sizing up people However, this question is often about indirectly sizing up the other’s socioeconomic status. People may be assessing, “How valuable are you? How much money do you make? What is your social status? What is your financial status? Are you richer, smarter, and more powerful than I am? Am I above you or below you in the socioeconomic ladder? Are you worth my time?”

Look, we live in a judgmental world where a person’s identity is at first ascertained by what he or she does for a living. Nevertheless, when becoming acquainted with someone in an informal setting, conversations shouldn’t be about inquiring after the other’s livelihood or about scrutinizing the other’s standing in society.

Chatting with somebody in “socializing situations” should be less about discerning the details of the other’s life and more about building a bit of familiarity to initiate stimulating conversations, debates, discussions, and exchange of ideas about topics of mutual interest—prospects that will all be missed if the initial interaction starts with annoying cross-examinations.

So, let’s try to make a conversation without seeking to interrogate one another.

If you’re looking for clues to a person’s passions or areas of interest to engage them in conversation, start with simple questions such as “how do you know Maria and Joe,” “is this your first time in Chicago,” or “what does your name mean?” Wait for personal details to flow into the conversation naturally. Or, wait further into the conversation before popping the “what do you do?” question.

How to Exit a Conversation Gracefully

Stuck in a boring conversation that you desperately want to escape but can’t see a way to without appearing discourteous?

How about trying a method parodied in the Seinfeld episode “The Stranded”: arrange for a friend or coworker to interject upon your wave of a hand, pattern of coughs, or some other silly gesture.

You probably feel that it’s impolite to leave a conversation after talking to somebody for a few minutes. You’d rather endure an uninteresting conversation and hang in there than leave rudely. You may not feel comfortable enough to exit courteously. Instead, you nod your head, exchange listless comments, or let your eyes wander around the room seeking an opening to leap to another person. You even look at your wristwatch and wonder if it’s stopped working.

How to Exit a Conversation Gracefully

Idea for Impact: The key to exit a conversation gracefully is to do so quickly and decisively

Here’s an ideal way to exit a conversation: at an appropriate moment, without interrupting the speaker, say something like, “It’s been interesting talking to you; I’d better go around and mingle” or, “Excuse me, let me say hello to the hosts.” If you’re stuck in a conversation over the phone or in an office, just say, “I’ve got to get back to work; let’s resume this discussion later” or, “I’ve really got to go; I’ll talk to you soon.” If you are sitting down, you can imply that you want to leave by simply standing up.

Avoid making up some insincere pretext to get out of the conversation. Try not to claim, “I have an appointment” when you don’t—the other can check if you really do. “Let me refill my drink” is not only overused but also silly when you just walk over to another person. The same is true for declaring, “I need to go to the restroom,” and going anywhere but to the restroom.

Often, a simple “excuse me” is adequate—don’t feel compelled to proffer an explanation or justify your exit. Be decisive and direct.

Related Tips from Previous Articles

Save Time by Meeting in Others’ Offices [Effective Meetings]

Save Time by Meeting in Others' Offices

Henry Ford Saved Time by Meeting Others in Their Offices

Here is a productivity technique practiced by Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company and automobile engineering pioneer.

One of his executives noticed that Ford almost always conferred with his managers in their offices instead of his own. Since, as the owner of the company, Ford could easily command them to come to him, the executive was curious about the reason for this practice. “I go to them to save time,” explained Ford. “I’ve found,” he said “that I can leave the other fellow’s office a lot quicker than I can get him to leave mine.”

Takeaway: If you tend to struggle to control the amount of time you spend in attending meetings and handling unwanted interruptions, offer to meet others in their offices. This technique discourages drop-ins and gives you a better handle on your participation: you could leave easily when you are contributing to the meeting.

Ethel Romm on Building Consensus

Building Consensus for Decision-making

Ethel Grodzins Romm was the President and CEO of NITON Corporation, a maker of scientific equipment. NITON is currently part of Thermo Fisher Scientific (NYSE: TMO.) Ethel is an accomplished engineer, entrepreneur and author.

Guy Kawasaki features Ethel Romm in his book ‘Hindsights: The Wisdom and Breakthroughs of Remarkable People.’ In her interview for this book, Ethel emphasizes the need for leaders to build consensus instead of enforcing their will.

Ethel Romm on Building Consensus

“Business is a garden of forked paths, and when we can’t agree on which one to take, then I make the call. There are occasions when you have to say, ‘I’m the president, and it’s got to go this way,’ but that’s the weakest appeal of all.”

“If it’s everybody’s decision—if everyone has helped to make it, or talked you out of something—then we’re all rowing together. Bosses say, ‘Go!’; leaders say, ‘Let’s go!'”

Sometimes, it is difficult for managers “to see why or how they are inefficient. They believe that they are succeeding—after all, nobody mutinies. They fail to understand that when you are the boss, everyone salutes you and follows your orders, regardless of your personality.”

“Thus, they are misled into believing that their meanness or callousness is keeping everyone in line. They can easily get the idea that if they don’t command, control, and coerce, the place will fall apart. The feedback is all wrong.”

Call for Action

Building Consensus for Decision-making Quite often, members of a team may realize that they have very little influence on the decision-making process and withdraw from active participation. However, the team buy-in on the decision to ensure prompt follow-up on expected contributions. Building consensus as part of the decision-making process, therefore, is one of the core team skills—for team members and team leaders.

Listen to every idea offered during a team conversation. Do not ignore or sidestep any ideas or concerns. Do not criticize or show objection. Instead, seek clarifications and discuss: “That is a great idea. And, one of the challenges we will face is…. How shall we work around that? What if we modify…? How about…?” Differences of opinion are natural and expected. Work on reaching decisions by building on the agreements.

As Dwight Eisenhower said, “Pull the string, and it will follow wherever you wish. Push it, and it will go nowhere at all.

Preparing to Attend Meetings

Preparing to Attend Meetings

Preparing to Attend MeetingsMeetings are important organizational tools. Whether as one-on-one conversations or as larger all-employee information sharing sessions, meetings are integral components of getting work done. Despite some obvious benefits, most meetings are not very productive and are longer than necessary. One of the primary reasons for the lower productivity of meetings is that attendees come unprepared.

Assume you have consented to attend a meeting because your participation is critical to the objective of the meeting. What questions will you ask to prepare for the meeting?

  • Have I read the meeting agenda? What is the objective of the meeting? What is my role? How will I contribute to the meeting?
  • What segment of the meeting is relevant to me? Can I join late or leave early if I am not required throughout the length of the meeting?
  • Is this a follow-up to a previous meeting? What action items had I agreed on then? What results will I present? What questions will arise?
  • What relevant pre-reading material should I seek?
  • What research do I need to do? Whom on my team should I talk to regarding items on the agenda?
  • Attending MeetingsWhat is the desirable outcome? What is the undesirable outcome? Is there a compromise?
  • What positions am I prepared to take on key issues being discussed in this meeting? What facts and charts will I present to support my position?
  • Who are the other attendees? What positions are they likely to take on key issues? Why? What are the likely group dynamics: who will support me, who will oppose my positions? What counter arguments will I present?
  • What other attendees should I talk to prior to the meeting to garner support to my position? Can I invite additional attendees to the meeting to help support my position? How will I persuade other people to see my point of view?
  • What action items am I willing to take? Do I have the necessary resources? Will I participate in follow-up meetings, if scheduled?

Meetings are all about sharing thoughts in a collective setting. They are only as good as the ideas that attendees bring to the discussions. By asking the above questions, you will contribute to focused, productive meetings. You owe it to yourself, the meeting leaders and to your fellow-attendees.