Two reindeers butt heads in disagreement

Why Disagreeing in a Remote Team Is Hard

When was the last time you disagreed with your teammates on Slack? Was it scary to share your thoughts in public? Were you worried about how the team was going to react? Was waiting for their response stressful? If you answered yes to these questions, you’re not alone. Disagreeing in a remote team is notoriously hard. In this article, we explain why that is—and why you should do it anyway.

Why disagreeing in a remote team is hard

1) You have to do it in writing

In face-to-face communication, tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language all play a role in conveying meaning. In written communication, all you have is words on a page or screen. That increases the likelihood of you being misinterpreted or coming across as harsher than you intended.

As a result, when you disagree in writing, you have to put in a little more effort to not come across as curt or insensitive. Some people don’t think the effort is worth it: between saying nothing and spending 45 minutes crafting a worthy argument complete with helpful links, they choose to just let it go.

And letting it go is…comfortable. When you don’t disagree, you don’t rock the boat. Also, if you turn out to be wrong, no one finds out.

2) Waiting for a reaction is painful

Communication in remote teams tends to be asynchronous, with remote team members working collaboratively across time zones. But sometimes, after hitting Send on a thoughtful opposing argument you spent hours writing and rewriting, you forget.

Rather than patiently waiting for your globally-distributed teammates to get caught up with Slack, you start wondering why, 14 minutes later, NO ONE has yet replied or even reacted with an ::eyes:: emoji to what you shared. You start freaking out: Was I way out of line? Was what I said stupid or ridiculous or inappropriate? Was it so bad that people don’t even know what to say?

Of course, while you agonize over what you posted and consider deleting it, your teammates are showering, sleeping, having dinner, or doing deep work, blissfully unaware of what’s going on in Slack and inside your head.

How to make disagreeing in a remote team better

Here are some tips to disagree better, in person and in remote teams:

1) Disagree on stuff that matters, or don’t sweat the small stuff

Often, we agree on big picture items and disagree on the details. That’s actually the best type of disagreement, because it doesn’t require consensus to be resolved. If team members can agree on a general direction (“we need a new logo to represent our company values”), they can defer the small stuff (logo colors) to whoever has the most expertise (designer).

2) Disagree while it’s still early

Disagreeing when a project is close to completion isn’t very helpful, since there isn’t much time for taking feedback into consideration and making changes. If you have a bad feeling about something, say it right away—don’t wait until you’re sure.

3) Set up a meeting to disagree

If expressing your disagreement in writing is scary, because a) You don’t want to make your opinion public, or b) You’re afraid of how people will react, don’t let it go and hope that things will will work out in spite of the red flags. Instead, set up a call with your manager or supervisor and tell them how you feel. Even if you are wrong, your manager will be grateful that you reached out, and you’ll feel better afterward.

4) Be mindful of how you communicate 

Disagreeing is hard, so be mindful of how you disagree. Use inclusive language to present your ideas—like ”we” instead of “I”; “and” instead of “but”—and emphasize that you’re working towards a common goal. Learn about nonviolent communication (NVC) and use it to share feedback and suggest changes.

Disagreeing in a remote team

Disagreeing isn’t a bad thing. It’s productive to disagree, since disagreeing leads to better understanding and improved solutions. Likewise, an absence of disagreements within a team isn’t necessarily a good thing: it could mean that team members don’t feel psychologically safe enough to speak up.

So if you disagree with your teammates now and then, don’t worry. The goal isn’t to stop disagreeing, but to disagree better.

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