I once worked with a woman who had a habit of saying ‘I don’t disagree’. This was invariable a response to a point her manager made.
Having it both ways
I thought this was a very safe approach to commenting on one’s boss’s comments. You don’t have to agree while you don’t disagree. You get to remain the business equivalent of Switzerland while still speaking up.
Depending on the environmental politics you work around, safe may be the best approach. But if you don’t disagree, does that mean that you agree? Or does it mean that you’re speaking up without having the gumption to take a stand?
Agreeing to disagree
For example, let’s say you’re in a meeting and your boss suggests outsourcing the entire IT department. Perhaps you’ve read a few articles on outsourcing but don’t consider yourself an expert by any means.
You could reply to your boss with the old “I don’t disagree”. And that may be true. You probably don’t know enough about it and the ramifications to either agree or disagree. But aren’t you actually just saying “I don’t know”?
Some people, particularly those working in political cultures fear admitting that they don’t know something. Admitting that you don’t know may make you sound uninformed and stupid. Who wants to open themselves to the ridicule of being the only one in the room who doesn’t know – or at least admits to it?
But saying “I don’t disagree”, well that’s almost like saying you agree. It seems a hell of a lot more informed than admitting that you don’t know. Or does it?
I don’t make a habit of embarrassing people in public meetings, but I’ve always wanted to ask them, does that mean you agree if you don’t disagree? Or are you just spinelessly trying to make a statement by not saying anything?
Consultants don’t have that luxury. A good consultant must give an opinion when he or she has one. And a good consultant should not be afraid to say ‘I don’t know’ when that’s the case without hurting his consulting career.
Not knowing everything is acceptable. Making a statement that says nothing is not.
If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at Amazon.com
As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.