Constructive Controversy

Enabling Difficult Conversations towards Problem Solving

Like the age-old saying, No Pain-No Gain, one can now say, No Discord-No Concord. Arguments, conflicts, disagreements, debates and discussions are here to say. Gone are the days when leaders want mere obedience and execution of orders but a clash of opinions before the decision and or conclusion is welcome. Or, is it?

Disagreements can give you an insight hitherto unknown to you, if you are tuned in to receiving it. Using the right approach to handle arguments can reap many a useful decision making input.

Here, intuitive leaders steer a conversation cleverly to tap diverse opinions and cleverly sum them all toward the final decision. The employees or colleagues are allowed to speak freely and reassured that they would not be penalized for being vocal. No attempt to control or constrain the conversation is made.

Sometimes the decision you anyway wanted to take would be the decision arrived at after the deliberations. But now everyone in the room owns it and the sense of belongingness and pride that they helped arrive at the decision goes a long way to garner loyalty from the employees. This is a positive leverage for the company.

It does take a lot of investment in time, but it is totally worth it. The motivation required to deliver the work is already set as they designed the strategy. Hence the employees set the pace by themselves, knowing fully well the challenges involved.

What is required of a leader to enable Constructive Controversy?

Enable a good conversation: The design of the context of the conversation has to be planned in a creative yet meticulous manner. The Leader, as his name suggests leads it, orchestrates it but does not control it. A collaborative effort, that brings to the table different perspectives and views, which helps to create a cohesive outcome.

Work on the premise that everyone is worthy an opinion: Unlike most instances where a Leader assumes that he is better intellectually and experience-wise than the team, Constructive Controversy works only when the Leader can fathom the reality that there are several in his team who may be far smarter, more experienced and intelligent than oneself. To be open-minded, curious and enthusiastic is the crux of Constructive Controversy.

Individual opinions matter: There are different talent sets, diverse ways of approach to a problem, a variety of ways to processing. Each opinion may not exactly be the same, but responding positively to each is vital to creating a better solution.

Do not pre-judge: When hearing multiple opinions and varied approaches to the solution, it may not always be what the Leader wants to hear. It is imperative not to rule out, criticize or judge if an opinion is worthy or not. Understanding the ‘why’ of the opinion is required first before eliminating it from the basket of suggestions that the Leader wishes to use.

Looking towards consensus: Common goals have to established at the outset and based on this, the areas of disagreement explored and corrected. Any repetitions and overlapping of ideas can be smoothened so that the final solution can be worked out having maximum commonalities.

Be Original and Genuine: There is no place for fake benevolence or a mere exercise on the dotted line, so to say. The Leader has to mean what he says when he’s asking for advise. Honesty pays and a genuinely interested Leader is the one who stays for the long haul and is humble about it. It applies also when he’s able to reject an idea. It has to be more on the lines of rapprochement rather than appeasement.

Ready to welcome difficult propositions: The Leader has to be able to face the flak or ready to listen to unpleasant things. If true, acknowledging it with no personal dislike to the bearer of that is difficult but necessary. Many Leaders fail to realize that the employee who brings the bad news is the actual loyal one rather than someone who camouflages it so that it sounds good. A true leader does not avoid dealing with it and addresses the problem promptly and effectively. Sometimes, these elicit lot of effort and may not be the short and easy solution, but definitely worthy as it plugs all loopholes and clamp any further disputes arising in the long run.

Be EQ enabled rather than emotional: Constructive Controversy may trigger a lot of emotions amongst participants, and in the Leader if he’s new to trying this method. It helps to be emotionally involved: providing the right empathy and support each suggestion or complaint deserves. Treat each with respect instead of an emotional response. A suggestion can be accepted or rejected with the right reasons and one need not have to be affected by it, as it is a rational decision, in the interests of problem solving.

Thomas Jefferson endorsed this method as a just tool of problem solving by saying, the difference of opinion leads to inquiry and inquiry of truth, and this was the essence of constructive controversy. Dialogue, negotiation, mediation, reconciliation are various mechanisms to bring out a consensus that is acceptable to all. When the popularly prevailing opinion is riddled with disagreements, thrashing them out in the open is always wiser than brushing them under the carpet. The elephant in the room has to be acknowledged, if a fair and just solution has to be arrived at.

How to go about it

  1. Define the problem
  2. Propose alternative courses of action
  3. Critically and vigorously argue/analyse each
  4. Present best-case scenario of each alternative
  5. Open discussion on all the alternatives that allows criticism and critical thinking
  6. Encourage ‘playing the devil’s advocate’
  7. All members genuinely appreciative of each opinion
  8. Decision making that refutes conflict and embraces consensus

Thus constructive controversy is in essence an intellectual discussion (not a debate) where each member seeks knowledge and gains each other’s perspectives without prejudice. Here, it’s the role of the Leader to respect all opinions and support change of opinion by a member after hearing another out. This cooperative effort has to be encouraged, else it will become a situation of ‘I Win-You Lose’ where egos clash and employees feel belittled when their suggestion is criticized or relegated to the background.

The atmosphere of reasoning and seeking information and solution towards the problem has to be enabled at all times. Creative solutions can come by if each employee takes the onus as being responsible for the discussion rather than trying to be the pride and authority of the entire brainstorming session.

The controversy becomes constructive instead of being destructive if it thrives in a cooperative, cohesive and vibrant bonhomie. The participants also are strongly motivated to produce solutions and be part of the delivery. Expertise is greatly shared and one finds productive solutions as against fiercely competitive participants guarding their secrets and not sharing. The self-esteem of individuals is enhanced and efficiency improves towards more effective solutions.

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