Why Trust Is the Foundation for Constructive Disagreement


In 2010, after two years and 348 pages of research, I found the answer to my research question of “why are people so much more creative when they work in startups than when they work in mature companies?” I could really boil it down to two words: innovation culture. More research showed that innovation culture is made of two components. Vertically, it’s the leader’s willingness to give employees autonomy and accept failure and the employees’ willingness to take risk and do the right thing, even if not instructed what to do. Horizontally, it’s the ability of team members to hold a constructive disagreement. You know, when they can argue passionately, without letting this argument become personal, emotional, irrational, and anything but productive.

Further research showed three behaviors that contribute to constructive disagreement: the willingness to be vulnerable, ask stupid questions and suggest stupid ideas; the willingness to provide direct, unfiltered feedback; and the receptivity to that type of feedback.

Those abilities (willingness) require a foundation of trust. You will be willing to be vulnerable only if you trust the other person to not abuse your vulnerability. You will be willing to provide the other person direct and unfiltered feedback only if you trust them to not take it personally and try to hurt you back. Finally, you will be receptive to direct and unfiltered feedback only if you trust the person providing feedback to have no hidden agenda or unprofessional reason to provide that feedback. I found that in high-trust environments, team members are 76% more likely to be receptive to feedback, 106% more likely to provide feedback, 240% more likely to be willing to be vulnerable, and as a result, 10 times less likely to believe that disagreements are unproductive, to not feel comfortable disagreeing, or avoid to disagreements altogether.

In a team, the level of trust (and therefore the willingness to hold constructive disagreement) will depend on the weakest link, the member least trusted by the other members, who will be reluctant to be vulnerable. 

Yoram Solomon, PhD is author of The Book of Trust. He is a trust researcher, speaker, author, trainer, and coach.


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Yoram Solomon




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