Collegially Disagreeable – The key to productive discussions

This is a good place to air our differences because we obviously get along with each other so you can raise an issue that doesn’t raise a hackle at the same time.

Dickson Despommier, “This Week in Virology podcast #851


“Collegially Disagreeable”:
combining 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 the following groups of people might react to what he advocates with he was dogmatic and disrespectful in these podcasts:

  • College Football Fans: Gladwell tells an audience of Penn State students and staff that it is 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 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 rock-and-roll fan: Gladwell makes the case that crooner Pat Boone was a more innovative rock-and-roller than Elvis Presley [In a Metal Mood];
  • Fans of Disney’s “Littlest Mermaid”: Gladwell calls the film “an abomination”, and devotes three episodes of Revisionist History podcasts justifying his position [The Golden Contract]

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 Disagreeably Collegial.


In the public sphere  the dangers of too much “disagreeability” are well known.  There are signs of this excess disagreeability all around us as societal cohesion erodes and hostile mutually mistrustful tribes form.  Communication descends into talking past each other without listening, or worse to a point where conversations are reduced to exchanging insults and ad hominem attacks.  This leads to gridlocked politics and an inability to set effective policies that address serious problems.

Similarly, an organization with a board containing even a few hyper-disagreeable members, or with factions that have disjoint agendas, easily descends into deadlock and acrimony.  Useful oversight and meaningful actions grind to a halt, leading to widespread de-moralization.


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 a group or tribe.  Acceptance by the group 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 society or group that is too deferential to its leaders often becomes an autocracy that abuses members who are insufficiently aligned with the official group “consensus”.  These outliers are labelled as illegitimate, as traitors, as “the Other”.  A corporate governing body with an overly-collegial “go-along-to-get-along” culture, one that discourages or suppresses dissenting opinions and rewards compliance, may for a time seem to run smoothly and efficiently.  But constant agreement often hides a failure to provide diligent oversight and prudent direction.  This ultimately catches up with the organization (eg. Enron, Worldcom, Bre-x, Nortel, Volkswagen, US SEC).



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

In a society (or a school) this means public conversations that honour those who value fair honorable process ahead of winning, those who strive for broad consensus rather than those who seek to maximize the benefit for themselves or their group.  Efforts to foster a collegially disagreeable cohesive society are fatally undermined if winners who bend or flout the rules are widely celebrated rather than condemned.  Even the extreme celebration of those who excel in a field can foster a culture of diminished collegiality by enhancing the “status-gradient” and promoting heightened competition.

Unfortunately much of our society’s communications related to sports, politics, business, and even school, focuses almost exclusively on winning.  This is exemplified by these popular sayings associated with culture-defining professional sports: “Nice guys finish last” (baseball), “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” (football), and “If you can’t beat them in the alley, you can’t beat them on the ice” (hockey).  Cheap shots – by your side – that you get away with are celebrated and excused (eg. Maradona’s “Hand of God” World Cup goal, or more problematically in the serious realm of war, My country, right or wrong“).

When the game is over, few cultures give more than lip-service to the adage “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game” (something that is offered as an attempt to console the loser).


Private corporations and 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 their core supporters, and loss of the next election, for being seen to be collegial with someone on the “other side” of issues. Altering a position on an issue when presented with new information is often seen as a sign of weakness, of “flip-flopping”, or worse – a capitulation to the other side, a betrayal.

(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.)

Another way to describe a Collegially Disagreeable culture is one that rewards Cohesive Dissent.


6 rules to be collegially disagreeable    Agreeable / Disagreeable