Why Good Decisions Require Honest Debate

Leaders aren’t in charge because decision-making is easy. But they can create a culture where everybody feels comfortable weighing in on tough calls.

Associations are in a bind. Last week, I reported on a new survey from content firm Omnipress showing that many organizations are still working through how to host their meetings. Associations have eagerly returned to in-person conferences in the past year because attendees say they want them, and because they’ve traditionally been top revenue drivers. But the pandemic era has also made attendees more skeptical about the value proposition of the in-person meeting. Exhibitors need more persuading to return to the tradeshow floor after a couple of years of spending their marketing dollars elsewhere. And inflation threatens to cut into revenue.

As a result, the survey shows, a lot of associations are now in hybrid mode for meetings for the near future. It’s perhaps not preferable, but it’s realistic. And it reflects the ongoing challenge of the “new normal”—how to have meaningful discussions about how to move forward while being clear-eyed about market realities.

In this, and other challenges besides, leaders are responsible for keeping those discussions honest. In a recent article in Sloan MIT Management Review, a quartet of experts argue that the best way to do that is to make sure that your organization is both psychologically safe and has a structure in place to have open debate. To push forward, they write, you need “a culture in which team members will proactively voice their ideas and disagreements in a rational and constructive way.”

Creating that culture, they explain, requires following five rules: 1) recognizing a common goal, 2) disagreeing respectfully, 3) focusing on the facts, 4) acknowledging where people might be wrong or miss important information, and 5) giving everybody a voice. All five are important, but I suspect the most challenging one for most groups is the fourth one: surfacing what you don’t know and where you might be wrong. Those are the gaps that people try to fill in with biases and assumptions.

Successful organizations need a culture in which team members will proactively voice their ideas and disagreements in a rational and constructive way.

Consider the findings of the Omnipress survey. Associations are eager to return in person, and they’ve surely heard plenty of attendees at hybrid and virtual events say they’d much rather be back in person. But that urge to get back to “how things used to be” neglects the fact that the economic calculus is different now. As the report puts it, “shifting attendee priorities, post-pandemic economic recovery, and staffing issues have made it harder for some attendees and their organizations to justify the time away and the expense. This puts even greater burden on planners to make their event truly worth attending.”

A conversation within an association about next steps will have to take into account this perhaps-unpleasant reality and find ways to work with it. That has its upsides: Facing facts can prompt an organization to experiment with different education formats, work to better understand member needs, and make value as much a part of the conversation around conferences as education and a sense of belonging.

But that requires leaders open to having those conversations in the first place, in an environment free of judgment. As the Sloan article authors put it: “Team members will feel safe to speak freely when revealing biases or being wrong is treated as part of the process for finding the best answers.” At a moment when right answers are harder to come by, there should be less fear that somebody might say the “wrong” thing.

(Yossakorn Kaewwannarat/iStock)

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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