Debating was part of my childhood and school years. At family dinners, we debated all the time: ideas, concepts, politics and opinions. It was a natural segue to join the debating squad at high school. I loved the energy, conversations and learning.
Debating as a concept harks back to ancient times. It’s designed to encourage participants to engage in a reasoned and structured discussion so that they think differently, learn, and explore complex issues.
Sadly, over time, the concept of debates in public discourse has eroded. The political debates that happen before elections spring to mind, as well as some of the debates we see play out in the media.
When debates are poorly conceived and structured, it becomes a war of ideas. Words fly backwards and forwards. The participants are not listening to each other. The object is to win and win at all costs; if you can take down the opponent in the process, there are bonus points.
Unfortunately, you see this play out in the working world, too. Consequently, debating can be seen as argumentative and as you being disagreeable. Consequently, at times, the rigorous debating of ideas is shunned. Instead, the idea of not raising objections, just going with the flow and quickly getting to a consensus is embraced. Seeking consensus has become a ubiquitous approach to decision-making and problem-solving. Everyone needs to agree. Everyone needs to be happy.
Consensus-building processes can be fabulous. They can foster agreement and harmony among individuals or groups by reaching a shared understanding. Consequently, there are times when you want consensus.
Consensus can also feel great. It can feel warm and comforting to know that you have an agreement.
But dangers are lurking beneath the surface when you blindly prioritise consensus agreement above all else. Also, be wary of the false consensus trap.
The fallacy of consensus
Leaders often think the sign of a healthy culture is that agreements are reached quickly, and there is collegiality, little dissent or difference of opinions. It’s the fallacy of ‘consensus rules’.
When team members are unwilling to challenge or disagree with each other, it’s a warning sign for leaders that something is wrong.
Teams need to be able to robustly discuss and disagree as part of a healthy decision-making process. Otherwise, they are prone to bias, error and groupthink.
Groupthink and Confirmation Bias
Consensus-seeking processes can inadvertently foster groupthink, a phenomenon where the desire for harmony, cohesion or conformity within a group leads to poor decision-making because different opinions are not expressed.
Groupthink occurs when individuals prioritise consensus over critical thinking and independent analysis. The fear of being perceived as dissenters, outsiders or disrupters discourages team members from expressing differing opinions. Consequently, only a narrow range of ideas is presented, leading to an increased likelihood of confirmation bias.
ANU Professor, Andrew Hopkins, has written extensively on risk failures and the dangers of consensus decision-making.
As an expert in this field, he’s found that groups are often more inclined to make riskier decisions than individuals because of a process he calls de-individualisation.
How this plays out is that because many people are responsible for the decision, the individual feels as though they are not personally responsible for it. They are, therefore, more likely to take risks and can be persuaded by the group to go against their own values.
He says: “Everyone is responsible for the decision which means, in turn, that no one person feels personally responsible. The end result is non-responsible decision making“.
Avoiding this issue is more difficult in an environment where debate is curtailed or silenced or where leaders fall into the trap of taking the path of least resistance and making easy and popular decisions.
For leaders facing unchartered territory, relying on what they have always done before and using default thinking patterns is fraught with danger. Complex and adaptive problems are not solved by the ‘quick fix’ or, at times, by relying on learned behaviour patterns.
This is because we don’t make decisions on facts alone. Our brain filters information – discarding information that doesn’t fit its worldview. It also takes ‘mental shortcuts’ as it is trying to conserve energy and decide what to do in the fastest possible way.
If leaders want an innovative culture and to progress, they need to be challenged to hear diverse perspectives, and that will only happen when their team members feel safe to share their ideas.
In group dynamics, dominant voices or influential individuals can exert undue influence over the consensus-building process. As a result, marginalised perspectives are overlooked or dismissed, and team members with alternative opinions may feel silenced. As well, it can perpetuate existing power structures and reinforce the status quo in your organisation.
These factors can give rise to a false consensus; people agree because they feel there is no other option.
Embrace the uncertainty
To avoid these challenges, you want to embrace the uncertainty of debate and challenging discussions. You want to seek out new ideas and input from different people continually.
This involves being naturally curious and open-minded.
Encourage your team to engage in spirited conversations – rather than silent, shallow or stunted conversations that don’t advance the decision-making process.
Spirited conversations create energy, spark new ideas, help people think more clearly about their position, and open the room to different solutions. These conversations are full of questions, additional perspectives being tabled and heard, and all participants are willing to look at issues from multiple angles. There is a safe space for the difficult topics to be surfaced and the challenging ideas shared.
Over time, this creates cultural norms where ideas are shared and challenged to achieve better and more robust decisions, which is a necessary precursor for sustained organisational growth.
So what debate will you start today?
Getting you ready for tomorrow, today®
Michelle Gibbings is a workplace expert, the award-winning author of three books, and a global keynote speaker. She’s on a mission to help leaders, teams and organisations create successful workplaces – where people thrive and progress is accelerated.