By Steve Kelman

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How to have a good debate at your next meeting

Executive Team (Shutterstock Image)

Regular blog readers may remember that I read the daily email from Harvard Business Review, which often contains interesting articles from academics and practitioners on management issues, and have sometimes blogged about these.

I came across an interesting one recently, this time written by Morton Hansen, a well-known management professor at the Haas Business School at Berkeley. The title is How to have a good debate at a meeting. Practical, right?

“The modern workplace,” the article begins, “is awash in meetings, many of which are terrible. As a result, people mostly hate going to meetings. The problem is this: The whole point of meetings is to have discussions that you can’t have any other way. And yet most meetings are devoid of real debate.” He wants to suggest ideas for how to make debates more robust, so meetings can better achieve their legitimate purposes.

“When teams have a good fight during meetings,” Hansen writes, “team members debate the issues, consider alternatives, challenge one another, listen to minority views, and scrutinize assumptions. ... However, many people shy away from such conflict, conflating disagreement and debate with personal attacks. In reality, this sort of friction produces the best decisions. In my recent study of 5,000 managers and employees… I found that the best performers are really good at generating rigorous discussions in team meetings,” compared to performers who are average or poor.

Some of Hansen’s suggestions, all designed to promote greater diversity of opinions expressed in a group, are:

Start by asking a question, not uttering your opinion. When the person running the meeting starts by giving their opinion and then asks for comments, typically nobody will disagree. Not giving your own opinion at the beginning is a frequent recommendation in prescriptions for how to promote honesty rather than conformity to the leader -- how to reduce groupthink -- among group members. But some meeting leaders have a hard time stifling themselves, not realizing how their behavior stifles others. Beyond making sure the question isn’t too leading, Hansen suggests a balance in the opening question between ones that are too general and too narrow; if “the problem is too general, the discussion will go all over the place; if it’s too narrow, that will limit the options. So spend time thinking about the best question.”

Help quiet people speak up. To draw in introverts and those who fear retribution from speaking up, try to “warm call” them ahead of the meeting. Tell the person something like, “I know you have a particular viewpoint, and I think it’s very important that it gets heard, so I’d like to make sure you share it with the group.’” Then lend your support (“Thank you for that important input”) after they have spoken.

Make it safe for people to take risks. Create an atmosphere of what the Harvard professor Amy Edmondson calls “psychological safety,” in which people feel they won’t be punished if they make a mistake. In Hansen’s study, one-fifth of participants were adept at creating a climate of psychological safety. To create this, Hansen suggests, lead by example (“Let me just throw out a risky idea…”); support those who try (“I really appreciate you suggesting…”); and sanction those who ridicule others (“I don’t want that kind of language here…”). Hansen’s data showed that those who scored highly on creating psychological safety performed better; a study of team effectiveness at Google showed the same.

Take the contrarian view. When Hansen taught an American Express turnaround case, the company’s then-CEO came to class. “He explained that he would often take the contrarian view: If the meeting was about raising the price for a service, he would show up and ask whether they shouldlower the price. It forced people to have really solid arguments for their views.”

Cultivate transparent advocates (and get rid of the hard sellers). “You want people to propose ideas and be passionate about them, but you also want them to be honest about the potential negatives. The problem is that there’s a human tendency to shift from being a transparent advocate (showing the plan, warts and all) to becoming a used car salesperson. You can combat this tendency by forcing people to show the negative: ”When you present in the meeting tomorrow, I want to see a slide with the five biggest risks, and we will spend lots of time discussing them, so be prepared.”

What I like about these suggestions is that they are not only practical in concept, but also practical to implement. They don’t require superhuman willpower or a superhuman revolution in one’s natural behavioral dispositions. Through mindful attention, meeting leaders can actually do this stuff -- and it should make a difference. Professor Hansen, thank you.

And I would love to hear from blog readers who have tried one or more of these techniques when they run meetings.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Jan 29, 2018 at 7:32 PM


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