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The Fast Company Executive Board is a private, fee-based network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.

15 tips to encourage vigorous (but respectful) workplace debates

Debate in the workplace is essential to collecting and considering diverse opinions, but it must be done respectfully.

15 tips to encourage vigorous (but respectful) workplace debates
Members of Fast Company Executive Board share their expert insights. [Image: Courtesy of the individual members.]
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Organizations thrive when a diverse team comes together to serve the audience and each other. Similarly, leaders benefit when they receive input from everyone throughout the company. Hearing from team members with a variety of backgrounds and experiences better informs important decisions. 

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When a variety of perspectives is brought to the table, however, it’s certain that there will be occasional disagreement and debate—sometimes vigorous. Challenging one another and sharing dissenting opinions is an important part of the brainstorming process, but for a strong and trusting culture, the debate must be healthy and respectful. 

Setting clear “ground rules” and leveraging smart strategies can ensure all your team members feel comfortable bringing their ideas forward and working together to reach the best conclusion. Below, 15 members of Fast Company Executive Board share ways they’ve accomplished this in their organizations.

1. GET CLEAR ON YOUR COMMON GOAL AND MISSION.

What has worked for me and my teams is making sure that we are all clear on our common goal and mission before we start a debate. Debates focused on accomplishing a specific task or project lead to productive input and conversation. This becomes a goal-oriented collaboration, so being “right” or “wrong” doesn’t get personal. – Karolina Hobson, Radd Interactive

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2. HOLD FREQUENT “DISRUPTION SESSIONS.”

Not only do we have frequent virtual town hall meetings, but we also come together every quarter for our innovation/disruption sessions. Although it’s meant for driving client business, we also designate time for healthy debate regarding internal direction and challenges. It also helps that we are an extremely diverse organization with individuals from around the world providing a global perspective. – Antonio Patric Buchanan, Antonio & Paris

3. PRACTICE AND REINFORCE ACTIVE LISTENING SKILLS.

Most people think that effective debating (or selling or management) is all about speaking and advancing your point of view. But listening skills are probably the most important quality when it comes to fostering effective workplace debates. How to do this? Encourage people to look at each other when they speak and listen and to put down their phones. – Todd Miller, ENRICH: Create Wealth in Time, Money, and Meaning

4. APPROACH DISCUSSIONS WITH HUMILITY.

We have a value of humility at Change Logic. That means that we assume with one another—and especially with our clients—that we always have more to learn than we have to tell. We hire humble people, and we call out anyone who tries to showboat with their behavior. That helps us to set a norm that every opinion and perspective is valid and that everyone has something to teach us. – Andrew Binns, Change Logic LLC

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5. CREATE PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY.

Create a safe space where diverse experiences are represented and given a platform to be authentically seen and heard. It helps to meet people where they are, ground them in the intent, and offer expert resources and support to foster ongoing dialogue. – Melissa Barash

6. PUBLICLY ADMIT IT WHEN YOU WERE WRONG ABOUT SOMETHING.

One way to start the ball rolling is to publicly admit that you, as the leader, were wrong about something. When your team sees that you can admit you were wrong, it lets them know by example that they can do the same. This builds mutual respect and really opens up dialogue. – Alex Husted, HELPSY

7. MAKE THE EARLY ROUNDS OF DISCOURSE ANONYMOUS. 

A fun example of allowing anonymity comes from how some professors have adapted to remote education. To encourage all students to share, they’ll ask everyone to set their screen names to “Anonymous,” then ask people to respond to specific prompts in the chat. This encourages people to take more risks and share more truly novel ideas without fear of judgment or loss of status. – Jonathan Fields, Spark Endeavors | Good Life Project®

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8. LEAVE ORGANIZATIONAL POLITICS OUT OF IT.

A leader fosters creativity and facilitates critical thinking without politics. If you want to innovate and grow, you must trade ego for genius—wherever that genius may come from. Often, the best ideas come from new people with a fresh perspective. In our organization, the greatest consideration goes to the best ideas, not just the ideas from the person with the most authority. – Liza Streiff, Knopman Marks Financial Training

9. ENCOURAGE CURIOSITY.

Commit to building a culture of curiosity by asking questions and encouraging others to do the same, showing genuine interest. This behavior allows people to share their thinking and ideas and feel listened to. – Amy Radin, Pragmatic Innovation Partners LLC

10. ESTABLISH A “NO JERKS” POLICY.

Set up a “no jerks” policy, and have it come from the top. If employees know there’s zero tolerance for disrespecting colleagues, it’s much less likely that they will step over the line when they have disagreements. By setting up a “rule” about rudeness, you can establish a culture of healthy debate, where team members know that their opinions are always valid as long as they’re respectful. – Becca Chambers, Ivanti

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11. GET EVERYONE ALIGNED AROUND YOUR PURPOSE.

One of the most critical ways to begin any debate is to ensure that all participants understand the shared goal of the exercise. All too often a lack of alignment around a shared purpose creates an opening for sharp elbows to enter the conversation. Ensuring this clarity of common cause brings the team closer and further creates a climate conducive to productive, differentiated collaboration. – Joe Watson

12. LIVE YOUR VALUES EVERY DAY.

There’s no secret sauce—you have to live your values every day. At meetings, we share what went into our decisions, including which parts were questioned (and sometimes, which were changed because of the questions). We use our open-source question-and-answer tool, Askaway, to invite more questions so the team knows it’s safe to speak up. We built our business on these values, and we practice them every day to keep them up. – Jason Cottrell, Myplanet

13. FOCUS ON BUILDING A GOOD RAPPORT WITH YOUR TEAM.

Healthy, reasoned debates are essential for learning and growing as a leader. Often, the onus is on the leader to cultivate the type of environment and culture where healthy debates become the norm. Having a good rapport with a solid foundation of mutual trust and respect goes a very long way in ensuring that debates don’t lead to discord. – Rhoden Monrose, CariClub

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14. ESTABLISH CLEAR RULES OF ENGAGEMENT.

Today we see employees expressing interest in political debate. That requires a unique approach because as a society, we have allowed our muscles for debate to atrophy. There is also a “maturity” gap in companies that hire people with different levels of experience. This can lead to misunderstandings. Companies must set up spaces for controversial debate with very clear rules of engagement. – Ximena Hartsock, Phone2Action

15. SET THE EXPECTATION THAT THERE ARE NO “GOOD IDEAS.”

Marc Randolph, the co-founder of Netflix, shared with me that there is no such thing as a “good idea”—not some good ideas and some bad ideas—no good ideas. Zero. Zilch. This means that nothing is sacrosanct. With that, the debate went from dirty to destined. My organization now embraces the idea that a debate is a fundamental part of the process of getting to a good idea. – Kathleen Griffith, Grayce & Co.