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Should Employees Argue More With Each Other?

Screen Shot 2016-01-01 at 10.32.55 PMWith the perils of groupthink and impenetrable organizational silos so well documented, new research might just provide a surprising solution: Get employees to start arguing – productively.

To test the value of dissent, Charlan Nemeth, a psychology professor at the University of California at Berkeley, divided 265 students into five person teams and asked the teams to brainstorm solutions to the Bay Area’s traffic congestion problem. The teams had 20 minutes to come up with as many good ideas as possible. Some of the teams were told not to criticize each other’s ideas, often a key ground rule in brainstorming. Another set was encouraged to criticize each other’s ideas – what the researchers called the debate condition. And a third set wasn’t given any instructions. Researchers in France conducted a similar experiment.

Together they concluded: “The encouragement of debate—and even criticism if warranted—appears to stimulate more creative ideas. And cultures that permit and even encourage such expression of differing viewpoints may stimulate the most innovation.”

But how do you encourage employees to criticize each other’s ideas while maintaining a congenial workplace? In a December Harvard Business Review article, Ben Dattner, an executive coach and organizational development consultant, suggests companies take a page from high school debate.

“One strategy that can significantly help teams avoid the dangers of Groupthink and successfully respond to emerging threats and opportunities is to create structured debates,” writes Dattner. “This is done by randomly assigning different team members to argue opposing points of view.”

Dattner uses the senior management team at an industrial equipment manufacturer, similar to Platforms and Ladders, as a case study.

He writes: “Half of the team was asked to argue that the organization’s current design made sense, and the other half of the team was asked to argue that the organization’s design needed to be changed. As a result of the open consideration of alternatives, the senior management team decided to disband a mid-level operating team that no longer served a purpose, freeing up those managers to focus on their individual areas. Without going through the exercise of rigorously debating whether changes needed to be made, the no-longer efficient status quo would have been maintained.”

Mark Peter Davis, a venture capitalist, argues for a more enduring change in an Inc. piece. CEOs, he writes, should build a flat hierarchy to encourage “constructive disagreement” among top managers.

“Imagine an organization in which the head of product was subordinate in every way to the CTO (reporting to the CTO, not having a voice in the leadership meetings, and having a limited role in decision-making processes). Would the product lead consistently engage in a healthy debate about his or her needs with his or her boss, the CTO? Probably not as frequently. Would the demands of the tech team trump product consistently? Probably more often than if they were peers. And, over time, this company would have a tech-bias and a less-than-ideal product,” writes Davis.

CEOs, Davis argues, should act as a referee who levels that playing field to ensure that the CTO and head of product debate.

“This means not only helping the team navigate each individual decision,” Davis concludes. “But also facilitating conversations about how the team members talk to each other. Don’t let emotional scar tissue collect within any stakeholder.”