Why a Good Argument Is Good for Your Association

Healthy disagreement is essential for your association to move forward. A few experts have thoughts about how to make sure you're debating, not fighting.

Associations talk a lot about being “consensus-driven,” which is generally a good thing—after all, an organization can’t move forward unless it agrees on its direction. But “consensus-driven” is a problem if consensus is the starting point, not the end goal. Rubber-stamp boards, or organizations meant to echo leadership’s particular vision, may be moving. But not necessarily forward.

What you really want is a “debate-driven” association, one that is open to discussing a variety of ideas with a mindset at arriving at consensus eventually, but not right away. A recent article from MIT Sloan Management Review clarifies this point nicely: “At their core, all great strategies are arguments,” write Stanford Business School professors Jesper B. Sorensen and Glenn R. Carroll.

The trick, of course, is that you want a good argument. Disagreements are valuable, so long as they don’t become exclusionary, paralyzing, or lead to hurt feelings. Indeed, the authors make a distinction between arguing and fighting. To avoid the latter, they lay out a process for what they call “constructive debate,” which is designed to test and explore biases and misunderstandings.

Disagreements are valuable, so long as they don’t become exclusionary, paralyzing, or lead to hurt feelings.

That means applying some structure. Going in, the group needs to be clear about the purpose of the conversation and the question they’re tasked with addressing. It needs to get all the relevant leaders in the room. And it needs to assign two key roles: a facilitator who ensures that everybody offers input, and a devil’s advocate who can openly (but tactfully) challenge the validity of the ideas shared.

The process, they write, should eliminate the organization’s hierarchies during the debate. In a constructive debate, the CEO’s opinion carries no more weight than anybody else’s. “Although the ultimate decision still rests with them, their authority should not be used to squelch debate,” Sorensen and Carroll write. “Instead, they should play subdued roles, not shoot down ideas, and allow their own arguments to be challenged by those with less power.”

Sorensen and Carroll have some good recommendations for how to visualize the ensuing discussions and then take action on them. But one of the main benefits of a constructive debate is that it surfaces assumptions and biases that restrict an organization. The reason an association believes it will enjoy member growth in the next five years may be built on a false premise about the industry. Only by putting that premise under scrutiny will the organization be able to change tactics. It means, as they write, “having the courage and the discipline to say ‘no’ to one course of action in the uncertain hope that another will be more promising.”

And that may explain why many organizations don’t take on the challenge in the first place. As much as I respect the process Sorensen and Carroll lay out, I fear that its formal structure may be too rigid or difficult to apply for a lot of organizations, especially those that are facing internal dysfunction. (The article doesn’t cite an organization that’s implemented this, but suggests that Amazon and Netflix put the general principle to work.) In which case your group may need to simply learn (or re-learn) how to argue.

At Harvard Business Review, business scholar Jim Detert has some advice for that, calling out words and phrases that tend to stymie discussions, or turn debates into fights. Skip the claims that things are “clearly” or “obviously” so; don’t be absolute in statements (“you always…,” “you never…”); don’t tell others what to do; and never, ever say, “Don’t take this personally.”

You can come up with your own examples, of course; many are common-sense approaches to conversation we learn when we navigate any kind of interpersonal relationship. But they key point isn’t that there are particular rules to having a conversation. It’s that you may need to look at what’s going on in your organization that’s keeping you from having an honest conversation in the first place.

(erhui1979/DigitalVision Vectors)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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