Collegially Disagreeable – The key to good governance

“Collegially Disagreeable”: to combine a willingness to engage in discussion about controversial, even distasteful, topics in a way that honours and respects others. 


Author/Podcaster Malcolm Gladwell appears to be extraordinarily congenial.  His writing is full of gentle humour, his voice soothing, and his conversations full of probing curiousity.  He seems to genuinely enjoy listening to what others have to say.  And, as evidenced by his best-selling books and podcast, he is vastly entertaining.

But hyper-friendly non-threatening guy-I’d-like-to-have-a-beer-with Malcolm Gladwell is also someone who regularly goes out of his way to piss off a lot of people.  Consider how angrily these groups of people would react to what he advocates in these podcasts:

  • College Football Fans: Gladwell tells an audience of Penn State students and staff that it was irresponsible to continue their prestigious and profitable football program because it causes life-long brain damage, and sometimes suicide, among players [Burden of Proof];
  • Traditional US Patriots: Gladwell describes how the legendary “Boston Tea Party” was more like a mob protection racket than a call for political liberty ([Tempest in a Teacup];
  • BlackLivesMatter activists: Gladwell explains, and seems to somewhat justify, why individual US police officers in some cases shouldn’t be commended for shooting someone from a marginalized community [Descend into the Particular];
  • Almost every Baby Boom music-lover: Gladwell makes the case that archetypal middle-American crooner Pat Boone was a more innovative rock-and-roller than Elvis Presley [In a Metal Mood].

He may be the perfect example of someone who is “Collegially Disagreeable”;  he combines a willingness to engage in discussion about controversial, even distasteful, topics in a way that honours and respects others.  It seems that to him every idea is open to exploration and all people are worthy of being heard.  This is the very definition of being Collegially Disagreeable.


Too much “collegiality” and group-think takes over, with the result that serious dangers and exciting opportunities are overlooked.

Peer pressure is real.  Humans are highly social animals, evolved to work together in our group or tribe.  Acceptance by the members of the groups with which someone identifies is very important to most people. It’s no surprise that it feels risky and uncomfortable to challenge the prevailing group position on an issue, or to disagree with a friend, supporter, or ally.  While a squeaky wheel sometimes gets the grease, just as often it is taken off the wagon and replaced with one that doesn’t squeak.

As a result, a governing board with an overly-collegial culture and no overt conflicts may, for a time, seem to run smoothly and efficiently.  But constant agreement can hide negligence in providing diligent oversight and prudent direction.  This will ultimately catch up with the organization it leads (eg. Enron, Worldcom, Bre-x, Nortel, Volkswagen, US SEC).


In contrast, too much “disagreeability” and a group disintegrates into angry mistrustful tribes.  A board with even a few hyper-disagreeable members or with factions having disjoint agendas easily descends into deadlock and acrimony.  Here too oversight and direction grind to a halt, but to this is added de-moralization.


A collegially disagreeable culture doesn’t just emerge by accident.  It needs to be deliberately built and constantly nurtured.

Private corporations and major charities have the opportunity to assemble boards of people with diverse backgrounds and approaches, with the needed range of expertise, and compatible personalities.  But too often they end up with overly-collegial homogeneous boards that give management an easy time with little meaningful oversight.  Diversity of opinion (over and above simple gender or cultural diversity) lets a group identify obstacles, pitfalls, and opportunities much better than a group made up of  people who think alike.  This is true even with a homogeneous group of brilliant people.  In most cases “diversity beats brilliance”.

Elected bodies, including school boards, have a different problem; their members are thrown together by voters.  There is no ability to carefully assemble a cohesive board with a range of relevant skills and a prior commitment to work together to provide effective governance.  Worse still, the qualities that help to get someone elected (out-going, attractive, self-promoting, combative), are different from those valuable in setting public policy (attention to detail and evidence, independence of mind, openness to perspectives presented by others, willingness to engage in meaningful discussion).

Members of elected bodies rightly fear punishment by core supporters, and loss of the next election, for being seen to be collegial with someone on the “other side” of issues. “Flip-flopping” on an issue when presented with new information is often seen as being traitorous.

(In the case of school boards, scrutiny by parents and the press means that challenging management actions can lead to accusations of “micro-management”, “dysfunction”, and loss of public confidence in the schools.  An overly “collegial” school board fades into the background.  An overly “disagreeable” school board hits stalemates and is unable to develop a meaningful collective strategy.  The first type is seen as irrelevant.  The second type is seen as “dysfunctional”.  Neither type earns much public support, even if they actually contribute to student well-being and achievement in their schools.)


6 rules to be collegially disagreeableAgreeable / Disagreeable