Leaders Encourage Vigorous Debate


Vigorous Debate - 1Great leaders know how to focus on the positive, helpful, edifying and uplifting communication while managing the negative, destructive, decisive and demeaning communication in meetings.

Consider this advice from a seasoned old-timer to a young leader who was still early in his leadership career. It happens to be from the New Testament of the Bible.

“But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless. Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them.” 

Titus 3:9-10

Have you ever been in a meeting that digressed and evolved into almost a free-for-all? As a contrast, have you ever been in a team meeting where the leader encouraged good debates and successfully squashed useless ones?

Such well-managed teams tend to finish their meetings with good plans and they do it on time. The participants feel productive and actually like getting together because everyone feels like they were a part of something productive.

But, back to my brief Biblical text. The Apostle Paul (the old-timer) exhorted a pastor (young leader) named Titus to refrain from arguing about peripheral subjects that divided his followers.  And I think that advice is relevant to leadership principles today.

There is a branch of modern communication theory that seems to have grown out of the apostle Paul’s philosophy. In 1968, Sir Charles Geoffrey Vickers, an English lawyer, administrator, writer, and pioneering systems scientist introduced the concept of “appreciative systems”, which later became Appreciative Inquiry (AI). It was really further developed nearly 20 years later at Case Western Reserve University’s department of Organizational Behavior. It started there with an article in 1987 by David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva. They felt that the overuse of “problem solving” as a model often held back analysis and understanding, focusing on problems and limiting discussion of new organizational models. At its core, AI is positive debate that explores what an organization does well and how it can build on its strengths.

Vigorous Debate - 3As leaders it’s sometimes difficult to limit discussion and keep debates from getting out of control. No one likes constraints. But constraints are often necessary for the truly good and great ideas to be heard over the din and drama of raucous meetings. Here is where a leader will benefit from a little understanding of the rules of “Parliamentary Debate” (PD). PD can help leaders in the following ways:

  • Control how interruptions occur. When debaters in a PD collegiate competition want to ask a question or insert a short statement, they must signal first. If the speaker doesn’t want to give up the floor just yet, the interrupter must wait for another opportunity. This alone will help the one with the floor maintain his/her train of thought and complete his remarks.
  • Prevent unneccesary confusion. When people don’t understand each other, incorrect assumptions can polarize them. Pause a debate with “points of clarification” to encourage understanding. Watch the body language for clues that folks are not understanding what is being said or what the message is supposed to be.
  • Limit speakers’ time. During PD competitions, speakers are cut off when they go beyond their time allotment. I have read about business leaders who kept an egg timer on the conference table during discussions. When it buzzed, the current speaker’s three minutes were up. Or at the very least he needed to “bring it in for a landing and conclude his remarks. I bet that they had productive meetings!
  • Do not allow personal attacks. Let’s go back to that verse in the Bible because a couple of verses from Titus bear on this point. The first, “Let no one disregard (or despise) you” (Titus 2:15b), encourages us to stand up to bad treatment. Titus 3:10 says, “Reject a divisive person after a first and second warning…” Rude behavior should not be tolerated and it is your responsibility as the leader to ensure the civility of the discourse.

How can we summarize this?

I would say it this way.

Rather than reject conflict outright, a leader must direct it and ultimately resolve it. And instead of fearing debate, he or she should welcome it as an opportunity to air all options and to collaborate on the ultimate solution. Like muscles that strengthen after stress, people perform better when they are challenged.

Let’s just make sure no one is injured in the process!

Photo credit: UK Parliament / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND
Photo credit: European Parliament / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND
Photo credit: European Parliament / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND
Photo credit: Southern Arkansas University / Foter / CC BY

3 Replies to “Leaders Encourage Vigorous Debate”

  1. Kevin do you think it is interesting that all (but one) of your pictures came from Europe? At what point in the debate should we just say, “We are doing it my way?”

    1. It is very perceptive of you to notice. But, I think we have lost the art of debate here on this side of the pond. The U.S. Senate was supposed to be the place for great collegial debate. But they have failed miserably in that regard.

      I for one would love to see the President (and ALL leaders) face the kind of vigorous debate and energetic questioning that the British P.M. face on a regular basis in the Parliament. That would get CSPAN viewership way up!

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