When we advocate strongly in a team discussion, we offer the group our best thinking and our preferred path forward. When we engage in a debate on the topic, we examine everyone’s advocacy from all sides, exposing the flaws and the strengths of each and every argument. Debate takes time, energy, and trust and we reserve it for those issues and decisions we have to get right or suffer extreme consequences.
Sparking a healthy debate on an issue, examining all arguments both for and against, helps leaders and teams land on the best choice going forward. Despite the benefit debates offer, leaders don’t let debates happen organically. People are too easily threatened by challenges to their ideas and advocacy, and when surprised by a debate, will often shut down or become defensive. By announcing that the team will debate an issue rather than discuss it, leaders prepare the team to separate themselves from the ideas they believe in.
In a debate, every fact, opinion and idea are open to candid examination. Nothing is sacred and above criticism. This can make those less experienced with debating very uncomfortable. To offset this fear, leaders layout one critical rule prior to any debate: no one should interpret an attack or criticism of an idea as an attack on them personally. This is easier said than done. The best leaders have the team practice on low-consequence issues and decisions to get the team ready for this unique conversation.
When the time comes to have a healthy debate on an issue, a team practiced in debate is now prepared to engage in full combat and to uncover the best answer possible through arguments and counterarguments. A team skilled at debate represents the best of what it means to combine openness, collaboration, candidness, and critical thinking. Like a perfectly executed athletic performance, experienced teams dissect arguments and create advocacy quickly and with a style that seems effortless to those who witness it.
Debate is a practiced skill that requires a great deal of trust and commitment from team members. It’s never too early to train a team to debate by beginning with a topic of low importance. Diet Coke or Diet Pepsi?