My family just got back from a wonderful vacation on the Italian coast. It was perfect: 10 days of good food, great sun, and beautiful beaches.

One day had the potential to ruin our trip, though.

I had caught a bad cold, and I was contemplating staying home. But my wife had her heart set on the beach, and since we have three small children, I came along to help out.

I thought we might head to the same beach we went to just a few days earlier. Soft white sand, clear and calm water, and a great bar where we could get food (and rent an umbrella and chairs). But my wife wanted to try a different beach, so I went along with the plan.

We arrived, and my wife was in heaven. She loved the turquoise water, which was full of fish and great for snorkeling. The views were amazing. And she even found a little spot under a tree to give us shade.

I wasn't as enthusiastic. The shade from the tree was great, but there were no chairs--and it was far from comfortable. The sand wasn't nearly as soft as I like. And the surf was much rougher, which certainly didn't please my 4-year old. 

As I kept comparing this beach to the other one, my mood deteriorated. I wanted to complain. 

"Why couldn't we just have gone back to the other beach," I thought.

And then I remembered three little words that have saved my relationship time and time again:

Disagree and commit.

Disagree and commit

The principle of "disagree and commit" was created in the 1980s, and popularized by companies like Intel and Amazon. It's a management principle that encourages healthy discussion and disagreement during the decision-making process, but that requires full support for a decision once made.

In one letter to shareholders, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos described it this way:

This phrase will save a lot of time. If you have conviction on a particular direction even though there's no consensus, it's helpful to say, "Look, I know we disagree on this, but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?" 

As Bezos explains, to disagree and commit doesn't mean thinking your team is wrong and missing the point. Rather, "it's a genuine disagreement of opinion, a candid expression of my view, a chance for the team to weigh my view, and a quick, sincere commitment to go their way." 

To disagree and commit isn't just a simple catchphrase; it's a practical way to show emotional intelligence in the real world.

For example, in the case of our vacation, I had agreed to let my wife pick the beach for the day. Sure, I could complain about her choice--but what benefit would that bring? Because of my cold, I would have found something wrong with just about any beach. And complaining would have just made everyone else miserable, too--and undermined my wife at the same time.

So, I did the opposite. 

I looked for all the great things about the beach, and voiced them out loud. "This water is gorgeous, honey," I said. "We haven't seen this many fish our whole vacation. And the view is really spectacular!"

"I know," she said, excitedly. "Isn't it great?"

And guess what? I survived those few hours on the beach. I eventually got over my cold, and we enjoyed the rest of our vacation. I even got to go back to the other beach I enjoyed so much.

Most important, I avoided what could have quickly snowballed into disaster--had I not remembered those three little words:

Disagree and commit.

How it can save your business

As you could imagine, this principle is extremely useful in the workplace. 

How many times have you seen great ideas get green-lit, only to fizzle out because of lack of support? That lack of enthusiasm could range from direct attacks, to indirect sabotage (withholding necessary resources, for example), to passive aggressive comments.

But what if everyone did the opposite? What if after a decision was made, all involved gave it their enthusiastic support, trying their best to make it a success--even if they didn't agree with it at first?

When companies create this type of buy-in, they build a work environment that is psychologically safe, centered on trust. (According to years of research at Google, it's this single quality contributes the most to the success of a team.) And if you're able to build a culture of trust, you'll get the best out of your teams.

There's no telling what you'll be able to accomplish.

How it can save your life

So, how can disagree and commit can save your life?

Maybe you've heard of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the most comprehensive studies of emotional well-being in history. The study has been running for more than 80 years and has resulted in an abundance of data on physical, mental, and emotional health.

What does the research show?

"The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health," said Robert Waldinger, director of the study and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. "Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too."

In fact, researchers who have analyzed the data, which included scores of medical records and hundreds of interviews, found that people's level of satisfaction with their relationships at age 50 was a better predictor of physical health than their cholesterol levels.

As Waldinger himself says: 

"Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period." 

So, what does all of this have to do with disagree and commit? 

In all our relationships, we're looking for support. Of course, good friends should be able to have healthy disagreements. Those differences of opinion help us to learn and grow.

But when it comes time to make decisions, there are times when all the discussion in the world won't change another person's mind. 

When that happens, ask yourself:

Can I disagree and commit?

If you can, you'll show your partner you're willing to go all in--and they'll do the same for you.

I know it's saved my most precious relationships countless times over the years. 

And it's a major reason why--after 11 years of marriage, three kids, and even the stress of a family vacation--the relationship between my wife and me is stronger than ever.

Published on: Jul 30, 2019
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