Encouraging Great Team Debates - Proteus Leadership
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Encouraging Great Team Debates

In summarising the behaviours of 150 leaders identified as either ‘multipliers‘ or ‘diminishers‘ of the people they led, it was noted that important organisational decisions are always subject to debate. How can you foster healthy debates amongst those you lead?

The problem comes when that debate happens after the fact – in whispered conversations in hallways and cubicles, as baffled team members try to make sense of decisions that seem abrupt and random… “Multipliers engage people in rigorous, upfront discussions about the issues at hand. They give people a chance to weigh in and consider possibilities – ultimately strengthening team members’ understanding of the issue and increasing the likelihood they’ll be ready to carry out whatever actions are required”Harvard Business Review.

The word ‘debate‘ comes to us, in part, from the Latin battere, which means ‘to fight‘. Now, I would never condone violence, but debate is an important part of learning, progress and teamwork. Teams need to debate in order to explore, challenge and understand the premises and issues that underpin and surround decisions.

Unexamined or isolated decision making may be quick and easy, but it incurs ongoing costs through misunderstanding, missed opportunity and mistaken assumptions.

Framework for effective team debates

Effective, constructive and intelligent debate doesn’t happen by chance. It’s an intentional process and one that requires practice. While there’s much that can be said about constructive debate, the following four-step framework should help anyone seeking to lead effective debate in a professional context.

Set up

It starts with the Set Up. There’s a common misunderstanding that we can solve problems simply by getting people together to talk things out. It sounds good, but the reality is challenged by many things – not least of which is personality and the differing approaches we take to ‘just talking’.

So setting up debate is important.

Set up includes establishing a clear agenda, distributed in advance. This gives people time to prepare (and encourages those who like to ‘wing it‘ to come prepared). The agenda should identify the purpose of the meeting and expectations of participants. It may also include assigned roles (for example, position statements or specialist information). Set up may also include appointing a facilitator – someone who can focus on managing the process rather than contributing to the discussion. The facilitator should establish (or remind people of) basic ground rules for effective debate.

One key part of the Set Up is to be as clear as possible about what the issue, problem or opportunity is. This work of ‘framing’ the issue is important because it not only helps people focus their thinking, but also helps isolate the issues that are not being debated. We’ve all endured the tedium of seeing discussions go completely off-topic.

Framing the issue can also establish ‘why’ the debate is taking place. Clarifying the issue should mean it is stated clearly, explicitly, simply and briefly. Clarity and focus create energy.

Front up

Next, everyone involved must Front Up. Anyone who is invited to participate and who accepts must be expected to contribute. There are no corners to hide in at a round table discussion.

Fronting up means being willing to state, challenge, inquire and acknowledge. You want as much information as possible shared as confidently and clearly as possible.

That means speaking up, listening up, and following up – succinctly, actively and respectfully. Stating a position, sharing information and asking for clarification can all lead to synergies of thinking – not groupthink, but new thinking. Fronting Up enables teams to engage in ‘systems thinking’ – that is, seeing issues not in isolation but in context, as part of broader, multiple, complex systems. This sort of debate is more about understanding and optimising than about persuading and winning.

Central to how we Front Up to the debate is our mental orientation and emotional self-management. The facilitator should encourage a solution focus – a discussion that seeks to understand ‘what‘ needs to be achieved and to explore ‘how’ to do it, rather than get bogged in interrogating ‘why‘ something’s not working or establishing ‘who’ is to blame. A facilitator can also moderate the language being used (for example, stick to facts rather than assumptions, encourage inquiry at least as much as advocacy) as well as manage the sharing of airtime so a balance of voices are heard. But how we front up is an individual responsibility. The goal should be that our ‘best self’ fronts up.

Wrap up

If everyone has fronted up effectively, then the Wrap Up should provide an opportunity for summary statements, acknowledgements of contributions
and progress, and commitments to next steps.

The energy and effort – physical, mental and emotional – that goes into solution-focused debate demands respect. And the most practical respect we can show is to garner the intelligence that has been gained through the process.

Again, a dedicated facilitator can help ensure this, not least by providing mini-summaries along the way.

Not everything can be concluded, resolved or decided. But acknowledging progress and capturing the intelligence gleaned ensures subsequent discussion proceeds efficiently from the point to which the group has progressed.

Follow up

Sound wrap up also enables effective Follow Up. It’s too easy to leave a room feeling like we’ve had a good discussion and that we’ve got some agreed actions. But unless it’s clear what is to be done, by whom, and by when, our efforts can come to nought and there will be reduced motivation for future contributions.

Intentional follow up communicates commitment and frames team debate as valuable, results-focused work.

Set up. Front up. Wrap up. Follow up. These four steps can’t guarantee great debates or outcomes, but they can help smart people more effectively debate the problem, not the perspective, and focus on crafting considered solutions by contributing, inquiring, acknowledging and learning.

By Aubrey Warren
Published with permission from the International Institute of Directors and Managers (IIDM) – www.iidmglobal.com


Proteus Leadership is one of Australia’s premier leadership training and development companies. Proteus Leadership provides leadership courses and management training to a range of industries and assists organisations to build positive workplace cultures, implement change and Create Great Leaders. Proteus also facilitates a range of world-class management courses, workshops, conferences and events across Australia and beyond with the sole purpose of bringing leaders together to connect and grow.

“Our core purpose is to Create Great Leaders that will in turn build Great companies and develop Great teams.”