To all my clients who continue to ask, “how can we spark debate when we are a conflict-averse culture?” please hear me: You’re asking a flawed question. Your question implies that debate is inherently not nice; the verbal equivalent of throwing punches and shade. But debate, even disagreement, in its purest form is not these. It’s candor and openness and humility and listening and momentum. And it fuels results. Debate – the safety and freedom to have it – is the thing that catches the hole in the plan that could have sunk us. It’s naming the process inefficiency that slows us down or inhibits customer delight. It names the crazy idea that is crazy…but also that shifts our thinking into a new creative zone, unlocking the genius we were quietly sitting on. Therefore, debate’s counterpoint isn’t conflict; it’s risk and missed opportunity. The cost of not debating is hard to quantify. But next time you see those around you “being nice,” ask yourself – “what are we leaving on the table?” Debate matters now more than ever. As times continue to stubbornly refuse to be precedented, we need all hands on deck to define our collective futures. And no organization claiming values of innovation or customer-focus can rightly say it lives these in the absence of open debate. So how can we evolve our leaders into dialog-makers? I have some pointers.
1. Start specific – not general. Some companies think wholesale culture change is the first step.
I say nope. Choose one leader. To choose one problem or opportunity. Test it out. See how it feels. Build from there.
I work with one leader who has (finally) acknowledged this as an opportunity for himself. His team insists he’s not open to dialog, to hearing their ideas.
He owns this. But he hesitates. He knows best knows what the CEO expects; he has the most experience navigating the organization, and he can’t afford a mistake in this market.
So, we compromised. Rather than shifting him – generally, we’re starting specific.
He’s planning to centralize sales – pulling all reps out of the regions, to be reporting to a new Chief Revenue Officer (CRO). He needs to define and scope the CRO role. This is the opportunity we presented to his team. Specifically.
2. Ask open questions
His default was to present a plan and invite feedback.
But guess what? No one has feedback when the invite feels disingenuous.
Instead, he presented a few guardrails around the role (must haves and have nots) and then – rather than sharing a plan – he asked his General Managers (GM) for inputs and ideas.
Invitations for feedback leave space for a “nope.”
But asking open questions implies an expectation of response.
He asked his GM’s:
What do you most want to hold onto in the regions and why?
What qualities and watch-outs should we look for as we recruit a CRO?
What have you seen in other organizations that we should leverage or learn from?
Having no feedback is fine. But offering no input is negligent.
3. Listen. Deeply.
Asking is a great start. But the riches live in the listening. Because when inputs fall on deaf ears, inputs are never again offered.
Here he truly listened. He agreed, he disagreed, he probed for clarity. He found his own perspective shifting. But even more critically, he saw his team members really building upon each other’s ideas.
He was finally witnessing the leverage that true dialog offers.
4. Distinguish conflict from richness
This story isn’t a fairy tale. This change – losing control of sales in the regions – was emotional for the GM’s. They would retain accountability for the local P+L – and had anxiety about giving control to someone new and unknown.
So in between creative bursts were also moments of shutting down, steamrolling, arguing, and more things we tend to find uncomfortable.
But we practiced distinguishing the productive from the unproductive.
It was OK to disagree with an idea – but not to cut someone off or discredit a colleague.
It was OK to question assumptions and assertions – but not to be disrespectful or patronizing.
We made rules along the way…and these have evolved into a set of guiding principles the team now uses in similar discussions.
5. Recognize progress out loud
Moments of uncertainty and discomfort are part of the process.
We manage these by acknowledging the discomfort, but applauding the courage to be uncomfortable and the progress (even in tiny increments) made through the collective effort to debate.
Otherwise it’s the moments of discomfort we’ll recall most clearly, leaving us hesitant to repeat the experience.
This takes time and patience and practice and grace. But you gotta start somewhere. So why not here?
Let me know how it goes...