We’ve all been here: there’s a heated argument on a team, one person is passionately proselytizing about the supposed right way to do something while another has literally become red faced holding a completely opposite, and equally passionate opinion. Others in the room are intentionally silent, just hoping for the episode to be over so that they can get back to their work.
A few weeks go by and you’ve mostly forgotten about the experience until something goes wrong with your product which conclusively proves one side of that argument was right — a flurry of “I told you so’s” are issued under-breath all while team morale just sinks one notch lower. Even a year or two afterwards the victor is holding their success high, kind of like a challenge to others on the team: I dare you to try and tell me that I’m wrong about, anything!
I’ve personally seen some form of that experience in every place I’ve worked, in my family, in school, and even at church. If you’ve been around long enough you’ve seen it too. Heck this even seems to be the standard practice of American politics!
There’s an important lesson in these moments: arguments are critical to the success of your team. That’s right! It’s important that you have passionate disagreements, but there is a right way (and many wrong ways) to conduct yourself in such debate. In the story above, the two furious combatants are at fault, but I’d suggest that the silent portion of the team is equally guilty.
By all means, be passionate about your opinions
In general, passivity never leads to progress. You might think that keeping a strongly held opinion to yourself helps to grease the team’s meetings with a lack of confrontation, but what’s actually happening is that you’re contributing to a dulled shared intelligence among your peers. Besides, you know that someone is going to be passionate about an opinion, and if no one else steps up to challenge you’ll end up just blindly following one or two voices.
Your team needs strong opinions! Something in your experience is telling you that the team is about to make a mistake — it’s your responsibility to speak up and let them know.
Likewise, it’s important to have strong opinions about things. There’s one other kind of teammate that I didn’t mention in the meeting above: the one who’s silent not because they want to avoid confrontation, but silent because they have no idea what’s going on. Have opinions!
Here’s a fun experiment: you have a team meeting coming up where 2 opposite approaches to solve a problem will be discussed. Pick one, do a bit of research, and then during the meeting champion that approach as if it was your idea the whole time. Even if you get completely blasted by the team, forcing them to counter arguments with facts or experiences is an incredibly valuable lesson from which everyone learns.
Go in looking to win, but resolve to join whoever actually does
This second point is as important as the first: resolve to join the winning team, even it that means abandoning your side. Let the debate be the theater where your team hashes out all disagreements, but leave it all on the stage. Once the fight is over, reassemble your team as a singular unit and move forward.
Few things are as infuriating as someone holding a victory over your heads for months (or years). So, for the “winners” of a team disagreement, it’s also important to win gracefully. Once the debate has been settled, move on! Your team will reach it’s acme when everyone works to support and augment each other. Moreover, your team’s highest potential is much greater than the sum of the individual champions among it, so join the fight and don’t go wandering off to be a lone combatant.
Don’t take it personally
Perhaps the most difficult habit to shake is this: taking things personally. Actually, this is probably the root of all issues in team arguments; some people find it impossible to dissociate themselves from their ideas.
It reminds me of arguments between neighbors over which brand of car is better. I know you drive a Toyota, but you yourself are not a Toyota. Yet, many people are personally offended when a disparaging comment about their car brand — not even their particular car — is heard. What’s crazy is that comments about these inanimate, mechanical creations often lead to real personal attacks and can cause a rift between friends.
You’ve also seen this on your teams: what started out as a calm debate about which color to use on your product has somehow devolved into personal attacks that have nothing to do with the product at all.
Here’s a mental practice I like to use: think of your idea, or your opinion, as a physical thing — like a car. You may drive that car, or champion that idea, but it’s just a car, there’s nothing personal about it. When someone brings up a compelling argument against your idea, they are pointing out a flaw in your car, not in you. Dissociating your opinions from yourself is empowering - it also allows you to champion ideas that you are not your own (the “devil’s advocate” approach). At the same time, be empathetic toward others and make an effort to view their ideas in the same way: don’t confront them, confront their ideas, their cars.
I’ll leave you with this: debate is healthy and being passionate about your opinions equally so. Your team depends on both of these to be high functioning, but remember to navigate disagreements with tact, and try hard to not take things so personally!