How to foster healthy disagreement in your meetings

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The way you interact as a team has an impact on your perception of your business. If your team’s interactions are getting predictable or languishing on a flat line, maybe it’s time to shake things up. These four strategies can break your team’s outdated habits and heat up your meetings: First, be grounded in a goal. Before you jump in to change the team dynamic, explain why. Reminding yourself and others of your purpose keeps you focused on what the group is trying to accomplish and reduces hurt feelings and drama. Second, describe the behavioral data. Observe behaviors that go unnoticed in your meetings and bring them up to the team so that they are in the know. Third, invite multiple interpretations of why these behaviors occur. Finally, disrupt the default values. use this new knowledge of the dynamics at play and why they occur to break familiar patterns.

We often consider ourselves lucky if we’re part of a team with little conflict and minimal office politics. When a team works together for a long time, they find a collaborative rhythm and adopt regular behaviors, minimizing disagreements. But over time, this usual way of working can limit the performance of the team. We do not often take a step back to assess whether the team dynamics that we consider “good” are an obstacle to generate innovative ideas and results.

For example, think about your last team meeting. Did everyone get along well? Could you predict who was going to speak and what they were going to say? Was there a disagreement? Do you feel like you’ve heard from everyone, or just a select few?

The way you interact as a team has an impact on your perception of your business. If your team’s interactions are getting predictable or languishing on a flat line, maybe it’s time to shake things up. Just as boiling water changes state from liquid to gas, innovation at work forces us to raise the temperature – to boil water at work.

Turning up the heat in your team meetings is creating enough productive tension through diversity and dissent to stimulate different ideas. Most of us want (too) quickly to reach consensus and overturn divergent points of view before they even surface. To want to converge in oneself is uncomfortable. Make ideas emerge versus conventional organizational thinking is difficult. But inserting a break to think outside the box provides a necessary provocation to improve our game.

To break your team’s outdated habits and heat up your meetings, use these four key strategies:

Be grounded in the goal.

Creating productive tension is dangerous and disorderly work. The only reason to risk being on the edge and inviting others to join you is for the right purpose.

Be explicit about why you are increasing the pressure, so that others don’t accuse you of criticizing the team or questioning their work. You might say, “If our goal is to double our numbers this year, the thinking that leads us to our current numbers is unlikely to transform our results. Let’s change the way we interact and exchange ideas. Reminding yourself and others of your purpose keeps you focused on what the group is trying to accomplish and reduces hurt feelings and drama.

Describe behavioral data.

Observe behaviors that go unnoticed in your meetings. For example, I have mentioned during several executive retreats: “In all four focus groups, the women took notes and the men presented. Or I could say, “After two hours of this session, 17 out of 43 people have yet to speak. These are small interventions that increase awareness of the dynamics in the play.

The data often reveals patterns: who opens the conversation, reactions to specific individuals, who interrupts who and when. Call models with specific data points, such as “In the last 30 minutes, every time a production group member spoke, he was interrupted by an engineer” or “I noticed that whenever someone shows the program delay, someone else immediately offers an explanation, but no one offers a solution. By shedding light on the data and models in play, you help the group test assumptions, break out of ruts, and increase creativity.

Invite multiple interpretations.

The more surprising your data, the more important it is that you invite others to interpret its several possible meanings. Ask team members to share their own thoughts on why certain team dynamics are at play. Often our first interpretation – and the action we take based on it – comes from the narrow angle of view offered by our position in the organization or our particular program. For example, if members of the production team are repeatedly interrupted by engineers, the group might interpret it in different ways, such as:

  • Engineers feel on the defensive because they have been slower to deliver a working product.
  • Engineers are higher up in the organization and feel they can interrupt others.
  • The engineering team is trying to share a recent breakthrough with the production team.
  • The last time there was a delay, the engineering group was blamed, even though the fault lay in several places.
  • Engineers try to support the production team by jumping to provide support data.

Often groups are mired in misunderstandings and conflicts lurking in a single interpretation. Such stories often involve an us versus them narrative in which we are the aggrieved party. Listening to our colleagues’ interpretations can reveal a very different set of assumptions instead of bad intentions – assumptions that could be just as valid as ours. Exposing different perceptions broadens everyone’s understanding of the underlying problem. With a more complete diagnosis, we can design a more robust solution.

Disrupt the default values.

Once the team notices their default behaviors and shares various possible reasons, everyone will have a clearer view of how they are viewed. Use this new knowledge to break familiar patterns.

For example, I ran an off-site C suite where Raul, the product manager, was always the first to speak. Over time, the CTO became quieter, and the CFO often engaged Raul in a debate that diverted from the main topic. After reporting this pattern, Raul vowed to remain silent on one topic until at least two more had spoken. Initially, others started to participate more – until we had a controversial question. There was silence. The group adopted their familiar demeanor by default, relying on Raul. But given his resolve not to speak first, he held back. Finally, the COO came up with a new idea that got the team excited. Using our interpretations of the data and models, we can reset our defaults to reduce malfunctions and improve contributions.

Whether you need to transform your team dynamics or disrupt conventional thinking to change business outcomes, breaking out patterns of your team’s behavior may be just what you need to create breakthrough ideas and new opportunities.

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