Productive “Debate” is Essential for High Performance Teams

Several dynamics are critical to the development of a fully functioning high performance team. In “The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team,” author Patrick Lencioni talks about a common team dysfunction — the fear of conflict — arguing that most organizations would benefit from more conflict.

It sounds completely counter-intuitive, but he’s absolutely right. Teams and organizations often work hard to avoid conflict. They strive to create an environment where no one says a critical word and every idea is a good one. Never mistake the absence of conflict for agreement or a sign of a cohesive team!

We think one of the biggest hurdles to thinking through and acting on this idea in a team environment is the word itself: conflict.

Conflict means different things to different people. The word can carry a lot of emotional baggage. So let’s be clear. We’re not talking about the political argument that boiled over at the family Thanksgiving dinner, or Jen and Jason who have diametrically opposed personalities and are unable to get along at the office. The conflict implied in these interpersonal squabbles is often destructive, mean-spirited, and confrontational. No one wants more of that type of conflict. What are we talking about then, when we call for “more conflict” in teams?

Instead of conflict, consider the word “debate”

Fundamentally, you want to create a team environment where ideas, strategies, and tactics can be openly offered and fully examined. The team’s overarching goal is to get all the ideas out on the table and make the best decision possible. Debate — productive debate — is the ability to openly and genuinely discuss ideas, issues, and action steps. Productive debate is constructive and moves the team forward.

“Imagine that ideas or recommendations are gladiators,” says Maren Perry, president of Arden Coaching. “The gladiators step into the arena and are thoroughly and honestly debated. The ideas are fighting to the death: not the people who brought the ideas to the arena, but the ideas themselves. The people are in the stands. You may be the ‘sponsor’ of a gladiator, but the gladiators are duking it out. The best idea wins. All the people survive and no one gets hurt!”

Team leaders must create an environment where productive debate is possible

The ability to engage in productive debate is built on a foundation of vulnerability-based trust. Read more about trust in Arden Coaching’s article, “Essentials of Team Performance: Trust.” When team members trust each other, they know that, no matter how passionately they discuss a topic, everyone on the team believes that everyone is trying to do the right thing and arrive at the best solution possible.

“People will not automatically do this on their own,” says Perry. “Without the right environment, your team members will not take the risk.”

To help team leaders create an environment where inquiry, exploration, and honest, open-minded consideration is encouraged and where productive, meaningful debate can occur, Perry emphasizes the following approaches:

1. Behave in ways that make it clear that you are welcome to new ideas and alternatives. To be believable, you need to walk the talk.

2. To foster discussion and encourage critical thinking and evaluation of different ideas ask open-ended questions. For details, read Arden Coaching’s article, “How (and Why) to Ask Open-Open-Ended Questions.”

3. Make sure the debate occurs during the meeting — not in informal side-bar conversations later. Everyone needs to be confident that no one on the team is holding back.

4. You need a fair and balanced approach to facilitating the debate. Encourage everyone to share their thoughts.

5. See that debate and discussion center around ideas, issues, and action steps, not individuals.

6. Speak last! Often, a leader will set the stage for a topic and include their perspective or the solution they are leaning toward. This creates a natural bias in the group toward the leader’s solution. 

Arden Coaching is an authorized partner of The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team™ program. Based on Patrick Lencioni’s Five Behaviors model, The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team™ program is a proven set of assessment and team-building tools that has become the most widely used process for effective team development globally.

To learn more about developing your team’s performance and the Arden Leadership Academy, contact us at [email protected] or 646.844.2233.