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How Leaders Can Encourage Productive Debate in the Workplace


Apr 10, 2023
How Leaders Can Encourage Productive Debate in the Workplace


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“Disagree and commit.” When Jeff Bezos says it, it sounds so easy.

Amazon’s founder famously encourages productive debate inside his companies. For Bezos, it’s not about building consensus but creating alignment. In his words, “I know we disagree on this, but will you gamble with me on it?”

Promoting a culture of spirited inquiry can mean walking a fine line between encouraging debate and avoiding derailments, but it’s worth threading that needle: According to a study by CPP Inc., workplace conflict costs U.S. businesses $359 billion annually in wasted resources and lost productivity. On the other hand, there’s the incalculably high cost of groupthink — a go-along culture that neglects important information, sidesteps real analysis and yields lackluster decisions. That’s especially dangerous in a slow economy when companies must leverage every competitive edge.

As an engineer, I’m used to productive disagreement and a fact-based approach to decision-making. That’s how engineering culture works. But as a CEO, I’ve found cultivating that culture across the company can be a heavier lift.

The right framework and a little humility can foster that spirit of productive debate, leading to more effective decisions and better outcomes. Here’s how:

Related: The Art of Having a Productive Argument

1. Before anything else — set goalposts

It’s impossible to weigh options if you don’t know where the goalposts are. That’s why the first step to encouraging healthy debate among team members is to establish common ground.

This starts with a clear company mission and targets but goes deeper than those broad principles. For every decision we deliberate, it must be clear what problem we are solving and what success looks like, and we must have clarity around any other parameters so we can properly evaluate potential courses of action.

If discussion stalls or debates get stuck, we can look back and see how this decision fits into the bigger picture. In a startup aiming to increase shareholder value, every decision must be held to this basic test: Are we driving value for the company?

2. Triage your debates

The most important element of effective debate is deciding when not to have one.

Not every decision merits a big confab or dueling whitepapers. I estimate that 70% of our decisions are of sufficiently low stakes that it’s best just to choose a course of action and correct it if needed.

But high-stakes decisions like launches, acquisitions and fundamental strategies demand a thorough examination of all viable options. McKinsey researchers have rightly pointed out that limiting input on these “big bet” decisions leads to substandard decisions. Knowing when to speed up and slow decision-making is fundamental for a CEO.

3. Beware of HiPPOs

Without careful planning, the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion tends to carry the greatest weight in any discussion. Leaders need to be cognizant of and work to counteract this HiPPO effect. For example, if I’m in the room during a discussion, I avoid stifling debate by expressing my opinion last.

Studies consistently show that thought diversity drives better performance, but team members sometimes need a nudge to express minority opinions rather than go with the flow. CEOs can overcome this “conspiracy of approval” by assigning someone to argue the cases for and against each option under consideration. I often have team members write these up in advance of group discussions. If discussions get sidetracked, I ask everyone to put on their “shareholder hat” and look again at the problem we are trying to solve.

Related: Conflict Among Team Members Can Lead to Better Results

4. Set an example from the top on how to disagree productively

Encouraging a culture of spirited deliberation requires consistent modeling. People unfamiliar with this kind of workplace may need to see a productive debate in action once or twice to get comfortable enough to participate themselves.

In my companies, new team members quickly learn that our culture encourages dissent backed by logic and evidence at even the highest levels of the company, but not conflicts grounded in ego or personal agendas. A crucial moment in this process is the first time a new team member and I disagree on an important decision. That’s my chance to model my receptivity to new ideas and humility when faced with better ones.

5. Know when to make the call

Ideally, a correct course of action will emerge during the debating process, but sometimes, the picture is unclear. In such cases, someone needs to make the final call. Every debate needs a referee.

Judgment calls can be challenging. They require experience, expertise and a deep understanding of the situation. You won’t always get them right, but you must have the courage to make them.

Just don’t confuse courage with pride. There’s no place for “because I said so” leadership in an organization that values productive disagreement. Command-and-control cultures are inimical to innovation. I encourage my leaders to unpack the reasoning behind their decisions to build trust and ensure that decisions are made in the team’s and company’s best interests.

Related: 3 Ways to Use Conflict to Strengthen Your Startup

7. Commit (and commit to revisit)

This brings us back to Bezos: Once a decision is reached, the team must commit completely to the course of action. By encouraging team members to commit to a decision, even if they disagree, a company can move forward and take risks that ultimately lead to growth and success.

When a small team of Amazon executives initially proposed the Amazon Prime program, it faced steep internal opposition over cost and potential risks. Bezos called on critics to commit despite their reservations, and today, Prime is a key driver of Amazon’s growth.

But it’s also important to analyze the effectiveness of major decisions at regular intervals. For example, after much deliberation, we’ve recently selected a go-to-market strategy for our new GitOps product. We will continue asking tough questions each quarter to ensure we’re on the right track.

It’s not easy creating and sustaining a company culture that encourages rigorous debate within the parameters of company goals and values. But it’s the only choice for innovative companies juggling high-stakes decisions. As CEOs, we must set the table and lead the charge.

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