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4 benefits of a ‘healthy debate’ culture

Companies with a healthy debate culture have a more engaged workforce; score better in diversity & inclusion, and perform better than their peers. Here’s why.

Are you finding yourself in a healthy debate now and then? A fierce conversation between people who passionately fight for what they believe? Fierce to the extent that it may look to an outsider you’re fighting with your conversation partner. And when the conversation is over, you leave the room shoulder to shoulder as if nothing ever happened.

If that’s a proper description of your culture, good for you. The chances are you leave no stone unturned, and you maximize the opportunities that may exist within your company. Most of what happens is above the surface.

Or are you part of a culture where the boss is always right? And where people either keep their mouths shut or are saying something to please the boss? If so, most of what happens, stays below the surface.

I know it was a while ago, but have you watched the moving ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’? If you did, then you’ve noticed the heated discussions that play out throughout the movie. To us, non-greeks, it comes across like the people in the film are always arguing. 

I had the privilege and pleasure to work in south-eastern Europe for a few years and be part of an international team. My boss was greek, and I worked in teams that consisted of many greeks. 

In addition to the beautiful greek hospitality, I witnessed a significant number of similar debates. After I got used to the debate style and observed and reflected what came out of the discussions, I learned that they were effective. Opinions were expressed easily and without judgment. 

Yes, emotions were high sometimes, but immediately after the debate, everything was back to normal. “No hard feelings” must have been invented in Greece.

I’ve also been part of the other cultures where nothing was said during meetings, and where nobody was willing to argue with the boss. Meetings were full of fear and lots of unsaid, valuable opinions that would have added value to the company’s growth. Those were the cultures where the conversation happened after the meeting in the corridors, with ‘friends’, full of sarcastic comments and complaints.

Which culture would you want to be part of? 

Healthy debate is crucial for any culture and any company. No team gets to higher performance without a culture of healthy debate or ‘storming.’ Storming can only happen when people know each other well. 

As described in my last blog about trust, you need to invest the time to get to know each other and trust each other before you can ‘storm’ and have healthy debates. Storming without trust does not end well.

Here are four benefits of a ‘healthy debate’ culture and what you can do to help create them.

They help build a culture of ‘diversity of thought.’

A culture where all opinions are heard during meetings, no matter background, level, or relationship, is a culture where discussion almost always results in the best possible decisions. 

Leaders in these cultures understand that they need to cherish ‘diversity of thought’ as the most important element of diversity that exists. Different thinking helps creativity, innovation, and optimal decision making. 

Diversity of thought is often a result of a diverse group of people, but doesn’t necessarily mean that a ‘diversity of thought’ culture exits. A company with a high degree of diversity, needs inclusive leaders who recognize and cherish the difference in hearing all the different thinking.

People whose opinions are heard, no matter who they are, what position they have, or where they come from, feel included in the culture and the company. 

When I know that what I think and believe is heard, I feel more connected, engaged, and loyal to the company. Being included creates meaning. It does not always mean that how I see things will ultimately make the difference. Knowing that my opinion will be heard, no matter what, creates the difference.

They waste no time.

It’s hard to calculate, but I often wonder how much time and therefore money is wasted by discussions happening in the corridor after the meeting. 

Leaders who are not capable of getting all the facts on the table effectively and efficiently, ensuring people leave the meeting feeling heard, create massive loss of time and money for the company. Unfortunately, they’re often not held accountable for that waste. 

Leaders who are capable and get the best decisions out of their people ensure no time is wasted.

They stimulate curiosity and inquiry

In ‘healthy debate’ cultures, leaders lead through questions. The ratio between statements and questions is healthy. Leaders know that through good, appreciative, and thoughtful questions, they create inclusion and maximize the chance for optimized decision making.

 Give me a leader who exclusively talks in statements, and I’ll give you a ‘corridor’ culture. Give me a leader who asks intelligent questions, and I’ll give you an inclusive culture. As a leader, learn how to ask good questions, and then learn how to stop talking and listen. 

They don’t shy away from emotions

Emotions can run high at times. A good leader can find a balance between too much and not enough. Like with most things in life, extremes are not always productive. Not enough emotion or too much emotion can be counterproductive. Cultural influences play a role as well, as we’ve seen in my greek example. 

But you don’t have to be great to allow for emotion and feelings in your discussions. They often bring out what’s beneath the surface. And as a leader, you need to know what’s beneath the surface to make the best decisions.

Your turn: how would you describe your culture? Are you and your leaders encouraging ‘healthy debate,’ or are you ‘pleasing the boss?’ 

Changing culture is hard. Start by investing time in getting to know each other better, leading through questions, and then having the patience to listen to the answers. You might just found out more than you ever could think of. 


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4 replies on “4 benefits of a ‘healthy debate’ culture”

I’ve remembered “passion around the table” and I often initiate that passion. Passion around the table means people care. Silence means they don’t. However, I have number of examples of great ideas popped up in a chats while enjoying a cigarrete behind the corner, or in the corridor, or even in the restroom. And I don’t agree this is waste of time. So, it’s not one or another. It’s balance of both – passion and corridor. Because in the corridor, that passion from the meeting is evolving. One thing is sure, you don’t need a monologue at the meetings. That’s a waste of money.

Thanks for commenting Emil. And I agree. Good ideas can come from corridor conversations. As long as they then also get shared and executed. I’m more concerned about corridor conversation that happens after the meeting and does not get shared.

Hello Erikjan,
Nice work and thoughts that you have been sharing on your blog. Just in addition to this article, it is also good to point out that dialogue and debate differ from each other. But that both have its purpose to a degree.
But there are 4 important elements in the dialogue approach that should be taken into consideration (I) the willingness to listen – often overlooked in the debate, as people try to make their point and are more focussed on what they want to tell next then to really listen (II) Show respect (III) Ability to slow down your own thoughts to give room for the others ideas, instead of being stuck in your own thinking; and (IV) Dare to speak up. Meaning you’re able to say what needs to be said, here and now & within the contaxt of this dialogue.
Warm greets,

Thanks for the comments Philippe. Agree with the distinction between dialogue and debate.

Dialogue triggers a certain perspective, and so does debate. I added the word healthy to clarify the intention and then explained what I mean, covering many of the topics you mentioned as well.

Many people people experience a conversation as a dialogue, when it’s in fact a monologue by one person. Debate, in my thinking, creates a perspective of conversation between people.

Fierce Conversation, True Dialogue, Healthy Debate, Good Fight, they all have the same intention and that is to create an exchange of perspective. I think you and I are after the same outcome here.

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