Foster a culture of productive disagreement and debate

The business imperative to nurture a culture of productive disagreement is clear. The good news is that senior leaders can play a very influential role in this regard. By integrating the concepts of openness and healthy debate into their own language and that of their organization, they can institutionalize new norms. Their actions can help reset the rules of engagement further by serving as a role model for employees to follow.

We offer a series of tactical strategies and offer a three-part disagreement temperature checklist that senior leaders can use to encourage employees to speak truth to power and to each other. To help promote a truth-based culture, assess the prevalence of debate in your organization’s culture and team dynamics. Ask yourself the following checklist questions on a weekly or monthly basis to assess whether you and your team are actively embodying and instilling the values ​​of debate in your organization.

Institutionalize: make debate a fundamental principle of your organization

In 2018, a BCG study of 100,000 business filings found that companies that described themselves using humanistic language including words that support debate and diverse opinions, such as truth, truth, facts and transparency, benefited from an annual growth bonus of 0.7% and an annual growth of 0.6%. % bonus in annual shareholder returns over a three-year period, as well as improved employee engagement and leadership diversity. Yet few companies have explicitly articulated organizational values ​​around upholding and seeking truth, respecting facts, and encouraging debate.

Leaders must embed the concept of productive debate into company value statements and the way they speak to their colleagues, employees and shareholders. Michelin, for example, has incorporated the debate into its statement of values. One of his organizational values ​​is “respect for facts”, which he describes as follows: “We use facts to learn, honestly challenge our beliefs…”. Another company that embraces debate as a value is Bridgewater. Founder Ray Dalio ingrained principles and sub-principles such as “being radically open-minded” and “appreciating the art of thoughtful disagreement” into the culture of the investment management firm. The company’s website states: “Bridgewater’s competitive advantage is our pioneering workplace culture that relies on truthful and transparent communication to ensure the best ideas win.

Leaders should also emphasize – and often repeat – values ​​such as “truth-seeking” and “debating” as priorities when undertaking major initiatives and as part of the desired end state in efforts. of transformation. Prior to the Normandy invasion, Dwight D. Eisenhower told his senior commanders, “I consider it the duty of anyone who sees a flaw in this plan not to hesitate to say so.” I have no sympathy for anyone, regardless of their station, who won’t tolerate criticism. We are here to get the best possible results.3


Geoffroy Perret, EisenhowerRandom House, 1999.

Disagree Temperature Checklist Part I – Institutionalize

  • Do your company statements (mission, vision and values) reflect the importance of debate, diverse opinions and the search for truth?
  • Are a wide range of voices engaged in developing the company’s latest initiatives?
  • Have you incorporated the language of productive disagreement into the way you talk about the company’s growth strategy, both publicly and internally?
  • Is productive disagreement incorporated into individual performance reviews? Is it directly and indirectly rewarded?

Characterize: Talk the Talk, Walk the Walk

Value statements won’t mean much unless they’re reflected in everyday actions. Employees are inspired by senior leaders. It starts with leaders who exemplify values ​​in their behavior. Leaders, for example, should openly admit their mistakes and be willing to publicly change their minds when presented with better evidence. Leaders must also seek to create an environment of psychological safety. Recognizing and acknowledging who or what led to their own shifts in perspective indicates that employees are not only safe to share, but also encouraged to share alternative opinions.

Harrah’s has become the largest casino operator in the world thanks in large part to former CEO Gary Loveman’s commitment to evidence-based decision-making. Loveman, a PhD in economics, modeled the behavior he sought to promote in his business. He openly admitted his mistakes when presented with facts and analysis and stressed that “his ideas were not privileged over anyone else’s.” [regardless] of title, rank or anything else.4


J. Pfeffer and RI Sutton, “Half-Truths and Nonsense: How to Practice Evidence-Based Management,” California Management Review2006;48(3).

Disagree Temperature Checklist Part II – Characterize

  • Have you recently asked someone for an alternate perspective or a reason why your perspective might not be the right one?
  • Has anyone disagreed with you?
  • Did you share a contrary point of view?
  • Did you and your team consider a different conclusion before the end of recent meetings?
  • Have you seen anyone change their mind?
  • Have strategies been questioned or redesigned?

Standardize: make it the norm, not the exception

Finally, leaders must formally embed the values ​​of productive disagreement into the organizational fabric and working methods. This can be done in a variety of ways, such as establishing discussion-friendly rules of engagement for meetings and using digital tools (e.g. Mentimeter, Slido and EasyRetro) that provide real-time feedback, help to bring out silent majorities, stimulate original thinking and encourage more inclusive conversations and productive disagreements.

Another way to ensure that dissenting opinions are heard is to integrate them into the organizational structure. In the early 1500s, Pope Leo X created the office of promoter fidei (promoter of faith) headed by advocatus diaboli (devil’s advocate) to provide arguments against granting sainthood to candidates. The US military uses “red teams” which are specifically tasked with challenging high-stakes decisions and plans, such as the plan to capture Saddam Hussein.

The same effect can be achieved by integrating the debate into the processes. At Pixar, directors present their projects at specific points of development to a formal team called “the Braintrust”, which is made up of respected peers. Embedded in the team’s name is one of the main tenants of its operation: the team and the director believe that their shared mission to improve the film will create a space in which unbridled feedback is openly received. As a counterweight to direct criticism, the Braintrust has no formal authority, so the director can receive feedback without being obligated to act on it.

Disagreement Temperature Checklist Part III – Standardize

  • Do your teams have formal activities and processes in place to pressure test current operating assumptions and regularly solicit contrary opinions?
  • Are you getting the truth from employees without resorting to anonymous surveys?
  • Has everyone shared an opinion in recent meetings?
  • Did you and your team openly acknowledge mistakes? If not, have you thought about how to avoid this in the future or have you developed an appropriate mitigation plan?

How do your answers to the questions in all three parts of the Temperature Disagreement Checklist add up? If your weekly or monthly review doesn’t consistently result in a series of positive responses, chances are your organization’s culture is less open to debate and productive dissent than it should be. In this case, consider what prompted you to answer “no” to a given question. Assess what is needed to turn each answer into a “yes”. Is it something you can do alone or does it require the commitment of your team? Or do you need to undertake a broader change within the organization? It’s not always easy to instill a culture of productive disagreement and debate in your organization. You may not always like what you hear, but you’re unlikely to regret it.

Helen D. Jessen