Debate in the workplace; is it healthy?

With the elections for the US president in November 2016 fresh in our memory let’s look at how to deal with debate in the workplace.

Several topics can spark debate, from politics to religion to parenting and sports. What most of the topics that are debated vigorously have in common is that they are usually not work-related. Work related debate can be and often will be healthy. The dynamic tension between various professionals will encourage all to put on their best performance to ensure their part of the issue will be known and be kept in mind when decisions are taken.

angry debate in the workplace

The enthusiastic Monday morning quarterbacking that happens in so many companies can also be healthy as it creates an atmosphere of common interest.

Most other debates have a tendency to turn into an exchange of thoughts that may offend some or all of the participants and seldom lead to a successful change in mind of anyone. Over the course of my career I have not seen anyone after a hot debate about religion changing their mind and their religion, nor have I seen a positive impact from the shouting matches about politics in the workplace.

So is there no place for debate in the workplace? Managing a prohibition on debate in the workplace is hard to imagine, but when tempers get hot it is useful to remind people that no matter what religion, political view, sports team or parenting philosophy you support, you are all here to work on the goals of the company. Anything you do or say that is not helpful to accomplish that goal will limit your usefulness and potentially shorten your career. It is good to know where people come from, it is useful to know each other’s religion so you can avoid potential conflicts. A frank exchange of views and explanation of topics can be useful to understand better why people react the way they do, but that is where the debates and exchanges of views should stop.

The Harvard Business Review has published a great article about it recently, read it HERE

Starting as a manager

manager at workWhen you are first appointed as a manager many things will come your way. New impressions, new relations, new responsibilities and new issues that you need to ponder and find solutions for. It makes a huge difference if you were already in the company and got promoted or that you were hired from outside. Both have their pros and cons. When you were internal you’ll have an easier time negotiating the company politics, when you come from outside it will be easier to be seen as a manager and not as “Joe who got a new position”. Much more can be said about this but my main point, as usual, is that you need goal clarity. The assignment needs to be crystal clear for you as manager, in order to be able to effectively lead your group.

The other important immediate issue is to find out what the social composition of the department or group is. Who hangs out with who, who has been here forever, who is the smartest person in the group, who has most experience. You need to know your resources.

Next you’ll have to find an effective way to communicate with the people; do they need meetings, are memos a thing, will emails be effective, is there a reporting system that helps the flow of work.

All great things to think about. The Fast company has a nice article about someone starting as a manager and the lessons learned in their first 30 days.

For me the goal clarity, getting to know the resources and finding an effective way to communicate would be the first focal points. You can read more about this in my book where I highlight the importance of many other points also.

Let me know what you struggled with in your first days as a manager. We’ll follow up over time with a summary.

Fight the beta mistakes!

The alpha mistake is usually easily spotted. When you accept something you shouldn’t have people will notice. The issue comes when you have failed to accept something, or see something that you should have recognized. This is known as the beta mistake and there is in general little risk with it. Think about not hiring someone who would have been perfect for the job, or not embarking on a project that really should have been executed as it would have brought the company forward. If you hire the wrong person for a job, it will be obvious after a while. When you do a project that

Beta greek symbol on white display board. Science and mathematical concept

totally fails, it will be obvious after a while. When you fail to hire a person who would have excelled in the job, no one will notice, likewise if you fail to embark on this project that would have been wonderful for your department or business, no one will likely notice. There is little risk with inertia.

These things happen every day and institutional politics and inertia lead to a situation where there little risk anyone will notice the mistake and so great candidates don’t get hired, great advertising campaign never get started and super projects get rejected and no one will ever know if it would have made a difference.

People by their nature do not like change too much. With weak players holding on to the status quo and declining any action that could jeopardize their position, your company or department will in the longer run become stagnant, inert and passed by other departments and companies that did make the brave move and accepted the candidate with the not so obvious resume who turned out to be their next CEO or who embarked on that tricky project that brought them the technology that makes them market leader.

So how do you fight this behavior, how do you encourage your leaders and managers to take appropriate risk and move forward when there are so little consequences of doing nothing and risking nothing? Audits, peer- and sr. management- reviews can help spotting the situation and providing evidence that opportunities have been missed but that’s only after the fact.

Goal Clarity is again a way to a solution here. You need to ensure that your staff understands that you do not hire them to avoid failures but that you hire them to do the right and best things for the department or business. For this you need an environment of openness and trust, understanding and participation by all. Safe and responsible risk taking needs to be accepted and the occasional mishap as a result should not end someones career but instill respect that they have tried and were not afraid to try something in order to do the right thing and not just avoid making mistakes by staying on the beaten path.