Why we lost the atmosphere of constructive debates


In my previous post I discussed the problem of overheated and narrow-minded debates between two opposite opinions [here]. And one thing was really clear for me: There was no atmosphere of constructive debate. How can this be? Two scientists discussed an issue and it became personal instead of focusing on what both sides have to tell. In fact, the outcome of this debate has a huge impact on science in specific and the society in general, so it should remain objective. But this happens not only to scientific debates; companies experience the same behavior in their working teams and managers have to solve personal issues between colleagues on a regular basis instead of focusing on the problems. In my personal experience the source of the problem is two-fold:

  1. The opponents are at separate locations, often without direct personal contact

In our information based society emails, social networks and blog posts are the main media for debates. This is useful to some extent, because writing something down clears your mind and you work on it to organize your thoughts. Nevertheless, no matter how accurate you write your sentences each reader will interpret them differently. The human nature is optimized to interpret information from their own perspective. Therefore a growing conflict is inevitable if we focus only on writing!

In a verbal communication, like face-to-face, the opponents provide redundancy in form of body language, voice control and empathy. This can help to reach common ground and solve conflicts before they start. Unfortunately though, communication on conferences and workshops as well as in many private sector working teams are usually not a place for constructive debates. The sessions or teams mostly gather people with the same opinion or at least with the same understanding or background.

A couple of years ago I attended a CO2 storage workshop in Berlin and most of the attendees were climate change advocates. When I told them that I was skeptical they rose their eyebrows and changed the topic of the conversation, instead of engaging in a constructive debate exchanging arguments.

  1. Avoiding disagreements

In the old days there was a patriarch or boss who said what everyone under his authority had to do. There was no debate at all. During the last several decades we developed a new approach on how we should debate. This approach changed companies and research organizations to what is called a flat hierarchy, where we now have managers and supervisors who inspire and take care of the team needs. Their duty is also to work with conflicts which is great, but we lost something on the way that we actually need. We forgot to debate in a constructive way. Instead of solving conflicts we learned to be nice to everyone and not to offend someone.

However, sometimes it is important not to be nice! In order to solve a specific problem you need conflict in the team, because you will never reach the bottom of the problem at hand if not all opinions are heard and discussed. Controversial opinions are always important to evaluate all aspects and risks of a given problem. A heated discussion can be very fruitful – as long as the attendees of the discussion can go to the pub afterwards and have fun together.

Conflicts are not per se bad, but should not be taken personally or used to humiliate others. A constructive debate should be built towards a conclusion. However, some arguments don’t necessarily get resolved during one meeting and should be discussed again at least one day later.

Did we ever have a period of constructive debate, you wonder? Usually only when something new is starting, like a new research or industrial project, newly founded company where no deep ties, structures or relations exist a climate of constructive debate is found.

As a personal example, I worked for a CTO once who was so afraid to have conflicts during his meetings that he basically ignored all project red flags given from his project managers. There was no debate and no climate where subordinates could thrive. The meetings deteriorated to nice small talks without any decisions or outcome. Because of this behavior the company had to resign two major projects and lost a big costumer.

In order to avoid conflicts some managers try to trivialize problems or assemble teams with the same background, culture, nationality or beliefs. But this in my opinion is absolutely wrong!

A team should always be assembled with different personalities, opinions and experiences. The more diverse the team is, the more creative and successful will be the outcome. Some of the team members should be creative and some should do the pedestrian work, but everyone in the team should be considered as equal. This is of course more work load for the manager who has to provide guidance, but the reward will be astonishing.

Our new living and working environment provides us with countless opportunities, but with some new challenges as well. We can use our opportunities in a good way if we remember that:

– It is essential to have direct personal contact to reduce the risk of misunderstandings.

– Constructive conflicts are essential for the success in scientific and industrial projects.