Mandy Musings

On disagreeing and committing

two birds sitting on top of a white rope
Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

While variations of the phrase “Disagree and Commit” have been floating around the tech industry for decades, it took on a life of its own after being invoked in Jeff Bezos’ 2016 Letter to Amazon Shareholders . Since then, many companies have enshrined this as an explicit value in their recruiting literature and employee handbooks.

This is a powerful value! When applied judiciously, it can enable teams to move swiftly while building trust and empowering one another. At the same time, misapplication can destroy a team’s effectiveness through distrust and disempowerment.

In this post, I’ll explore both the positive aspects of this value and some of its most common pitfalls.

Getting it right

Let me start by quoting from the 2016 Letter to Amazon Shareholders1 at length, both because of its unique influence and because it manages to pack a lot of nuance into a relatively short space:

…use the phrase “disagree and commit.” 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?” By the time you’re at this point, no one can know the answer for sure, and you’ll probably get a quick yes.

This isn’t one way. If you’re the boss, you should do this too. I disagree and commit all the time. We recently greenlit a particular Amazon Studios original. I told the team my view: debatable whether it would be interesting enough, complicated to produce, the business terms aren’t that good, and we have lots of other opportunities. They had a completely different opinion and wanted to go ahead. I wrote back right away with “I disagree and commit and hope it becomes the most watched thing we’ve ever made.” Consider how much slower this decision cycle would have been if the team had actually had to convince me rather than simply get my commitment.

Note what this example is not: it’s not me thinking to myself “well, these guys are wrong and missing the point, but this isn’t worth me chasing.” 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. And given that this team has already brought home 11 Emmys, 6 Golden Globes, and 3 Oscars, I’m just glad they let me in the room at all!

Fourth, recognize true misalignment issues early and escalate them immediately. Sometimes teams have different objectives and fundamentally different views. They are not aligned. No amount of discussion, no number of meetings will resolve that deep misalignment. Without escalation, the default dispute resolution mechanism for this scenario is exhaustion. Whoever has more stamina carries the decision.

I’ve seen many examples of sincere misalignment at Amazon over the years. When we decided to invite third party sellers to compete directly against us on our own product detail pages – that was a big one. Many smart, well-intentioned Amazonians were simply not at all aligned with the direction. The big decision set up hundreds of smaller decisions, many of which needed to be escalated to the senior team.

“You’ve worn me down” is an awful decision-making process. It’s slow and de-energizing. Go for quick escalation instead – it’s better.

There’s a lot going on in this section. Below are a few of the most important points that I’ve drawn from it.

Commitment is consensual

In the hypothetical example at the beginning of the section, Bezos instructs readers to ask others to commit despite disagreement, and that they’ll probably get a quick “yes”.

At the very least, this means that they’ll sometimes still get a “no”, and that it’s acceptable to reject the request.

This is consistent with most informal notions of “commitment”: it’s a choice made by an individual, and “being committed” to something is a result of that individual’s own values and choices. True commitment means going beyond a strict interpretation of what has been asked for us and wholeheartedly pursuing the success of whatever project, initiative, or organization that we’re supporting.

It can be faked, but it can’t be forced.

Commitment is empowering

In the second example, Bezos shows how leaders with decision rights can model the usage of “disagree and commit”. As the person with the most power in a discussion, he explicitly placed it aside in order to respect the expertise of his team; once he was confident that his team understood his concerns, he let them make the choice, and he committed to it.

This is one of the most powerful ways that a leader can display trust in their team. This sort of trust is contagious, and it can be the factor that sets a high performing team apart from a mediocre one.

Here, I’d go further than the shareholder letter: this value is most appropriately displayed when the commitment flows from the folks with the greatest power in a disagreement to those with the least power.

Commitment is not the only means to resolve Disagreement

The letter introduces the phrase “disagree and commit” in the context of swiftly making decisions. Since commitment is always framed as being consensual, there must be a way to quickly resolve disagreement when that consent is absent. And it is presented at the end of the section: escalation to an individual with sufficient decision rights to make a call.

Bezos does not name the behavior of responding to this decision, but it’s no longer really appropriate to call it “commitment”. For the remainder of this post, I’ll refer to it as an “expectation of compliance”.

Entering this mode is not a failure! It is neither practical nor appropriate for every decision to be made by consensus. A mature leader will make it clear when they are making an independent decision, and they will explicitly own the consequences of that decision.

When compliance is expected

When a group collectively values this sort of commitment and has fostered the degree of trust that allows them to shelve their misgivings in order to provide mutual support, a sudden unwillingness to commit may be indicative of deeper, more serious issues.

  • Some decisions may most heavily impact a small set of folks who are subject to it. For example, a proposed change to code may carry the risk of incidents that only a small group of engineers will know how to fix. Alternatively, a proposal to return to physical offices might substantially disadvantage those who are most distant from the office.2

  • Some folks involved in the decision may have profoundly different estimations of the risk associated with some of the options.

  • Occasionally, there may even be legal or ethical concerns that are not shared equally among those who are affected by the consequences of the decision.

At times, these sorts of deep disagreements are unavoidable. When this happens, it is unreasonable to ask for commitment, and someone with decision rights must make the call. There are two common consequences for reaching this point:

  • “Escrow” of trust: in order to go along with an externally imposed decision, the affected folks must place some of their trust in the decision maker. This may be returned—or compounded—if the decision goes well or if the leader responds appropriately to failure, but it will be at risk of vanishing entirely if the leader makes too many demands on trust in the meantime.

  • Sanctions for noncompliance: these are rarely spelled out, as they’re often unpleasant to consider, but the ability to impose (or at least influence) sanctions related to employment, remuneration, influence, and privilege is arguably the basis for decision rights in the first place.

It’s worth noting that these two are deeply interrelated: more serious sanctions will more quickly deplete reserves of trust. For particularly contentious decisions, it may sometimes be advisable for leaders to explicitly spell out expected sanctions for noncompliance because otherwise, folks affected by the decision will be forced to speculate as to what they are, and this may come with an even greater than intended cost to trust.

Another opportunity to limit the consequences of this style of decision making is to clearly lay out the case for why the decision needs to be made without waiting for a commitment and how folks will be taken care of if the decision turns out poorly.

While commitment may be the ideal, an occasional expectation of compliance is unavoidable within large groups of people. Leaders should weigh the benefits and consequences carefully.

Getting it wrong

The most common failure modes with Disagreeing and Committing all spring from failing to appreciate the power dynamics of the participants.

Attempting to force “commitment”

Commitment without consent is not commitment. It’s as simple as that.

We can value commitment, and we can even encourage it, but it cannot be forced.

This is by far the most common misapplication of this concept that I see, with even Amazon’s own ceo being quoted in 2023 as saying, “if you can’t disagree and commit…it’s probably not going to work out for you at Amazon,” during their push to force employees to return to physical offices.

It’s obvious that a leader saying such things is no longer open to feedback on this decision, and it’s also clear that employees who refuse to comply with it are being threatened with expulsion. However, by hiding behind the language of “disagree and commit”, this leader patronized their employees and further degraded their credibility.

Any time you find yourself tempted to make a statement like “it’s time to commit” or “you need to commit”, you’re no longer actually talking about commitment: you’re talking about compliance.

I’ve seen some folks try to skirt around this by saying things like, “if you want to stay here, you’ll commit to…” This merely compounds one mistake on top of another: picking up and moving to a different organization is difficult in the very circumstances, and it may be practically infeasible for some folks as a result of financial responsibilities, complex medical needs, or other intractable, personal issues. The “commit or leave” ultimatum is not a completely free choice, and framing it as such only breeds resentment, which is toxic to organizational effectiveness.

Commitment and compliance are different concepts, and conflating them leads to confusion and harm.

Refusing to consider disagreement while demanding commitment

If leaders disagree among themselves and then fully commit to a decision that affects their team, it’s inappropriate to refer to any interaction that follows that as “disagreeing and committing” because there’s no more room for effective disagreement!

The most the leaders can do is ask for commitment, but since the discussion is closed, it’s more likely that they’ll be expecting compliance.

Being vague about sanctions

Sanctions are unpleasant, and we often avoid talking about them, but if you’re willing to impose them for noncompliance, own it. Vagueness in this area will only increase confusion and distrust. Though it may be uncomfortable, clarity is kindness.

On the flip side, if you don’t need everyone to comply, make that clear, too, especially if there lesser forms of compliance—like non-interference3—that are acceptable to you.

Tl;dr (too long; didn’t read)

  • Never demand commitment; only request it

  • Avoid conflating commitment with an expectation of compliance

  • If commitment is impossible within a group, escalate to a clear decision maker

  • As a decision maker

    • Recognize that expecting compliance will degrade trust, at least in the short term

    • Clearly communicate why waiting for commitment is not viable or undesirable

    • Consider being open about sanctions for particularly contentious decisions

    • Avoid patronizing affected folks by implying or stating that they still have a free choice in the matter

Wow, you read to the end!

I guess this is the part where I’m supposed to sell you something, but I don’t have anything to sell. 🤷🏼‍♀️

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