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I’m working on a project for a client on how to foster more open and honest debate.  It’s a topic that I think most teams can benefit from, so I thought I would share some of the ideas here on the blog.  Today, I’m going to hit on the high-level issues you need to think about.  Over the next while, I’ll go into more detail on each.

If your organization’s culture is to shy away from conflict or to step back from uncomfortable situations, it’s going to take a sustained effort on each of these areas to start to make a difference.  Dive in where you can and don’t give up when people don’t immediately start giving performances worthy of the Harvard debate team.

1. Make it clear what you need people to contribute

How many times have you gone to a meeting or worked on a project where you have no idea what you’re expected to contribute? If you aren’t sure what you’re doing, you aren’t likely to speak up. You’re even less likely to challenge or disagree with someone when you don’t know your place—what right do you have to challenge? When you engage with a teammate, make it clear what you’re looking for. “I’m not looking for word-smithing, I would like you to take a look at this and see if I’ve represented our customers well.” If you are asked to participate and your role isn’t made clear, just ask. “What are you looking for me to contribute?” “How can I help?”

2. Position people to succeed

There are few things that are more frustrating than being expected to weigh in on a topic when you don’t have the context or the information to make an informed contribution. If you’re looking for people to challenge and debate, you need to give them a leg to stand on. Provide background materials and see if people come to different conclusions. Better yet, ask people what information they think would be relevant for the team to consider. If you are asked to have a point of view but lack any relevant information, ask for some “what could I read to prepare myself for this discussion?”

3. Shift from a culture of permission to a culture of obligation

Frequently, I hear language of permission around conflict and disagreement “it’s ok if you disagree” or “I welcome other perspectives.” That’s nice, but usually ineffective. If you have a conflict avoidant culture, it will be uncomfortable to disagree publically. If all you’re doing is giving someone permission to do something they don’t want to do (like giving your teenager permission to take out the trash) it’s not likely to happen. Instead, use the language of obligation, such as “I need you to point out things I’m missing” or “we are counting on each member of the team to bring the different perspective of their stakeholders.” Make active debate a non-negotiable.

4. Challenge ideas constructively

It’s important to model a positive response to ideas. That means challenging the idea rather than the person. It also means making your challenge feel like an alternative way to look at things, rather than as the only way (or the right way) to look at things. “It’s interesting that you came to that conclusion. When I read the report, I thought the sales trends suggested that we discontinue that product. How are you interpreting the Q1 and Q2 numbers?”

5. Reward those who add value

The final opportunity to encourage open and honest debate is to reward those who give it a try. When someone disagrees with you, sound interested, look open, engage in a conversation with them about their idea. When someone agrees with you, pay it little attention unless they share a unique perspective on why they agree or how they arrived at the same conclusion through a different path. If you reinforce the debate and disagreement, you’ll get much more of it in the future.

Getting to really candid and valuable debate and disagreement—what I call Productive Conflict, will take a while.  Use these baby steps to move things in the right direction.

Further Reading

Be a More Effective Devil’s Advocate

How to get a Juicy Conversation

Your Conflict Defaults

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