The Value of Opposing Viewpoints

Agree to Disagree: Why Teams Perform Better With Divergent Perspectives

Apr 30, 2018
As Featured In 
Academy of Management Journal

Team members aren’t always going to agree with leaders’ goals and strategies — but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In certain circumstances, having disagreement among teams, and the discourse that this disagreement elicits, can translate into better success for certain types of teams who are tackling complex problems, according to new research from the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

Trevor Foulk, a management professor at the Smith School, and two co-authors studied multiteam systems — or teams of teams — that take on complex projects or crisis situations (think new product launch teams, natural disaster emergency response teams or major accident scene patient-care teams). Multiteam systems are complex, and with so many teams involved conventional wisdom suggests it's best for all parties to agree on strategy and goals quickly. Not so, finds Foulk and his coauthors.

Multiteam systems (MTS) are often structured with a leadership team that coordinates the actions of several component teams. Due to the complex nature of these systems, teams coordinate via planning and goal-setting, and receive their marching orders from a leadership team. These large, complex interdependent teams have to plan for risk because they are dealing with high-stakes projects. They need to weigh the costs and rewards involved in any possible course of action to figure out which strategy to pursue. 

Foulk’s research reveals that multiteam systems actually perform better — by engaging in less unwarranted risk behaviors and more aspirational behaviors — when component teams disagree with the leadership teams in terms of how much risk the MTS should take. Foulk says this is likely because agreement may spark premature consensus, whereas disagreement causes all parties involved to express ideas, opinions, concerns, etc., that may ultimately lead the team to consider better options.

“There is comfort in agreement and shared views, but the leadership team should be particularly wary of rapid consensus during the planning process because the research shows this can result in lower performance and lower aspirational behavior,” write the researchers.

They say if leaders see team members agreeing too quickly, they should play the devil’s advocate to elicit different perspectives.

To keep people from the tendency to simply go along with the leadership team, Foulk says leaders shouldn’t reveal their goals during the planning session. They should urge team members to speak up first and voice diverse perspectives during planning and goal setting, rather than too quickly agreeing on a strategy. Leaders also need to be patient because the benefits of different perspectives may take time to emerge, say the researchers.

Read more: The Benefits of Not Seeing Eye to Eye With Leadership: Divergence in Risk Preferences Impacts Multiteam System Behavior and Performance is featured in the Academy of Management Journal.

About the Author(s)

Trevor Foulk

Dr. Trevor Foulk is an Assistant Professor of Management & Organization at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. He received his Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior from the Warrington College of Business at the University of Florida, and his Bachelors of Business Administration from the University of Massachusetts.

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