What to Do When Teams Argue

When business leadership fails to foster an atmosphere where healthy debate can flourish, the business cannot thrive. While disagreements are not always pleasant, they are essential to innovation and breakthroughs.

Knowing what to do when teams argue and how to frame those discussions for productive outcomes are the keys to more effective team discourse.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, author Shane Snow highlights what companies need to do to create teams that think differently and can work together to create change. He argues that too many work arguments are rooted in intellectual dishonesty.

In Snow’s definition, intellectual dishonesty is a failure to see and speak the truth. It can run the gamut of behaviors, including:

  • Being deceptive
  • Pretending to answer questions when actually not answering
  • Saying things that don’t make sense and pretending they do
  • Being unfair while pretending to be fair

For business teams, intellectual dishonesty can become stubbornly ingrained. Members become too concerned with a win, leading to a disregard for logic and evidence that are contrary to our original beliefs on an issue. Fighting occurs instead of productive discourse.

The right business strategy is to focus teams on how to exchange diverse ideas and debate the merits of those ideas. Doing so creates more productive arguments and better business outcomes.

When team members are focused on the problem, not on being right or taking disagreements personally, better outcomes are realized.

How can businesses build teams that focus on intellectually honest discourse and debate? Here are some suggestions.

We’re On the Same Team. Remind team members that the purpose of debate is not to convince people you’re right or look better than others. It’s about finding better solutions collectively. To do so, teams need to leverage the diversity of thought and remember the following:

  • We are working as colleagues, not adversaries.
  • Our shared goal is to find a solution to or a better way to do [X].
  • All viewpoints made in service of that goal are welcome and valued.
  • There is no winner or loser. The team wins when progress is made.
  • There is no hierarchy or weight given to one viewpoint over another.

Just the Facts. Snow contends that people who feel their ideas are under attack often bring emotion, other issues and logical fallacies into the debate. Clear rules need to be established to prevent this behavior from derailing productive dissonance, including:

  • Debate is not about who’s most articulate or powerful or who is the loudest.
  • We need to distinguish between facts and interpretations.
  • Check the quality of the evidence, not just the evidence itself.
  • If debate veers away from the core issue, acknowledge the diversion and reset.

It’s Not Personal. Teams need to work to depersonalize arguments. There can be no name calling and questions that cast judgment. Team members should assume everyone’s intentions are good and be encouraged to change their mind if persuaded to do so. The purpose and focus need to be on moving the group forward, not on being right.

Stay Intellectually Humble. Group members need to respect viewpoints and be open to new ideas by following three guidelines:

  • Listen to and respect others’ viewpoints, even if you disagree.
  • Admit when you’re wrong and cheerfully concede.
  • Be curious.

An open, honest framework allows teams to disagree and argue effectively, leading to better outcomes and collective, shared wins.

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