Healthy Debate Culture Is Essential for Radical Candor

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Radical Candor" by Kim Scott. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is a healthy debate culture? How can you ensure a lively and honest discussion without it devolving into an argument?

A culture of radical candor needs a healthy debate culture. Ideas can be discussed and improved, but people have to be able to debate issues without feelings getting hurt.

Read on for six methods to build a healthy debate culture.

The Importance of a Healthy Debate Culture

Debate is an essential step in getting good results. When ideas can be discussed and improved, it leads to better decision-making and easier persuasion of the people who are going to execute or be affected by the decision. Some bosses think it’s better to make decisions on behalf of their team—it’s quicker and avoids the friction that often comes with debate—but not allowing team members to debate and talk through decisions creates distrust and feelings of being “left out,” which will make it harder to persuade people to future decisions. 

As the boss, you don’t need to be in every debate. However, you do need to foster a healthy debate culture among your team. Healthy debate culture doesn’t imply debates where there’s no real friction or big ideas to wrestle with. It means that debate is structured in such a way that it makes sense, is respectful, and doesn’t take too much emotional energy out of your team. There are six ways that you can help create a healthy debate culture.

Six Methods to Support Productive Debates

Method #1: Make sure ego isn’t getting in the way of good ideas. Often, conversation around finding the best answer gets derailed by people’s egos and the need to be right or “win.” If you sense that people are starting to focus on winning instead of finding an answer, your job is to remind everyone of the goal, and redirect the conversation in a productive direction. There are several ways to save an ego-driven conversation. 

First, set up clear rules before debates, such as no interruptions, or no giving criticism without adding an idea. Then, be quick to stop anyone who claims an idea as “theirs” instead of involving the whole team, or uses the opinions of absent people to bolster their opinion—such as in saying, “We don’t think that’s the right direction for this project.” Finally, have team members switch their position on an issue halfway through the debate—knowing that they’ll have to argue against themselves makes people put aside their egos and listen more.

Method #2: Establish the expectation of disagreement. A healthy debate doesn’t happen when everyone around the table is in agreement—make it clear that you expect someone to consider the issue from a different perspective. If simply asking your team to disagree won’t work, you can use a prop to represent the expectation of disagreement. When there isn’t enough debate happening, hand over the prop (and the duty to disagree) to a team member. 

Method #3: Know when to take a break. Your debate may reach a point where everyone is too tired—physically, mentally, or emotionally—to productively contribute. It’s unlikely that pushing your team past this point will result in a good outcome. Team members might start bickering instead of debating, or a decision will be made just to end the meeting. 

It’s your job to know your team members well enough to see when they are approaching this point, make the call to stop the debate, and decide when to pick it back up. 

Method #4: Know your audience. Recognize that you might have team members who don’t like debate—they might be anxious about speaking up, or find the practice too aggressive or direct. If you know your team members well enough, you’ll be able to see when they’re not comfortable with the debate atmosphere, and you can jump in to help them.

Ease debate discomfort by making the goals and expectations of the debate clear from the beginning, which diminishes anxiety about how things will go or how it will end, and use your ground rules, such as no criticism without contribution, to show that it’s a safe space for speaking up. 

Method #5: Set a deadline for your decision. Everyone needs to have the same expectations for when a decision will be reached—otherwise, there will be tension between those who want to think for a bit before making a decision and those who want to make a decision at the end of the meeting. Mark a decision deadline for each of your debate topics, so everyone is aware from the beginning when decisions are expected to happen. 

Method #6: Don’t make a decision just to end the debate. When a debate’s been dragging on for a long time, it’s tempting to make a decision just so that it will end—as the leader, you’re the one who will be expected or pressured to pull the trigger on this decision. Remember that your job is to support your team members by taking breaks, setting new rules, or redirecting conversation so they can see their debates through to the end. Don’t take agency away from them by making a quick decision.  

Healthy Debate Culture Is Essential for Radical Candor

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  • How you have to be direct with people while also caring sincerely for them
  • Why relationships are an essential part of successful leadership
  • How to create a strong team culture that delivers better results

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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