The only way to argue that actually works

by Jeff Haden: Bestselling non-fiction ghostwriter, speaker and columnist for Inc.com.

I walked into the meeting with seven other supervisors feeling sure it would turn ugly.

We had completed performance evaluations for our employees, and now our job was to decide - as a group - which employees deserved merit raises.

Some of the supervisors had been with the company for thirty years and felt their opinions should never be questioned. They also knew the news of who received merit raises would spread across the shop floor like wildfire... and the last thing any supervisor wanted was to be perceived as having not "taken care" of their employees.

So yeah, we argued. Here's an example. (I'll call the other supervisor "Justifius.")

Justifius: "Well... he's a great team player."

Me: "Your crew is running 10% under productivity standard. Doesn't sound like a lot of teamwork going on."

Justifius: "He's also a great leader."

Me: "Your crew is underperforming. Where exactly is he leading them?"

Justifius: "He also has great people skills."

Me: "Since your crew is underperforming, wouldn't it be better if he had great productivity skills?"

Justifius: "Now look. At least one of my folks has to get a merit raise."

Me: "Hey, they can all get merit raises if they run better."

(I know. I was a jerk.)

Here's another example. When I discussed one of my employees, Justifius tried to get me back for steamrolling him:

Me: "He's had no quality complaints, is at 120% of standard, and trained three new operators. Plus he's the go-to guy for mechanical problems on that shift..."

Justifius: "Yeah, but what about his people skills? I hear he can be abrasive."

Me: "He's only abrasive when your guys try to borrow people they don't need."

Justifius: "Well, someone with poor interpersonal skills should not get a merit raise."

Me: "He's at 120% of standard."

Justifius: "And people tell me he sometimes doesn't start up right away at the beginning of his shift."

Me: "I don't care when he starts up. He's at 120% of standard."

Justifius: "Plus it seems like he's always in the break room."

Me: "How would you know? Do you spend a lot of time in the break room?"

Yep, could have handled that one better too.

During a break my manager said, "You came in here with all your facts and figures and productivity results and ran over everybody. You brought notes and productivity reports for every employee! I can't let you have that many more merit raises than everyone else. Team cohesion is really important, and you're in there arguing like a lawyer."

"I thought treating employees fairly was really important," I said. "You told us to present our cases. I can't help it if other supervisors weren't prepared. Plus I'm lucky enough to have a lot of great employees and they shouldn't be punished because they happen to work in the same area.

(Okay, so maybe he was right about the "arguing like a lawyer" thing.)

He glared at me for a few seconds and said, "I'm not going to argue about this any longer. You're done. No more merit raises for your area."

That's the problem with work arguments: The best idea rarely wins. The loudest idea often wins. Or the idea proposed by the most senior person. Or the idea floated by the person who, um, argues like a lawyer.

Worse, those arguments often create hard feelings - and cause teams to dissolve into a collection of individuals with different agendas and goals.

But there is a better way.

As Daniel Coyle, the author of the outstanding new book The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, says, " The problem is, it's really hard to argue well. Like any collision, every argument brings risk - will it damage our relationships? Hurt our status? As a result, many of us tend to avoid arguments, or (worse) engage half-heartedly, surrendering our position at the first sign of pushback."

According to Dan, the key is to change the way you think about arguments. We instinctively see argument as a negative-a tension that needs to be resolved. Strong cultures, however, flip that on its head. They view argument as a continual exercise, part of the never-ending process of getting feedback, locating the truth, and getting better.

Argument isn't the disruption to the status quo - it is the status quo. It's not a problem to be solved; it's a craft that you practice together.

"I remember listening to a high-ranking member of the San Antonio Spurs front office argue with a coach over shot selection," Dan says, "basically, whether it was smarter to shoot open two-pointers, or to always try for a three-pointer. The two went at it, hammer and tongs, for half an hour - a loud, energetic volley of argument and ideas and numbers, each side pressing its case, offering evidence, appealing to reason and emotion. Then, when it was finished, they made plans to get dinner together. It was awesome."

Want to argue better? Want to discuss different points of view in such a way that the best idea wins?

Here are some tips Dan found from observing a number of successful groups:

  • Be open about it. Don't hide behind closed doors. Try to hold arguments in public places so those kinds of conversations become the norm.
  • Aim to be energetic and civil. Sarcasm and personal attacks are off limits.
  • Keep it focused on the issue at hand, and don't let one argument expand into other areas.
  • End by affirming your connection. A lot of the arguments Dan witnessed ended with some version of, "I'm glad we can talk like this." According to Dan, it wasn't just a nice sound-bite; it also happened to be true.

In my case, I was open. I was energetic.

But I wasn't particularly civil, I was happy to veer off on a tangent if it helped my case, and I definitely didn't affirm my connection with other people at the end.

Which is why, even though I "won," I also lost.

And so did the rest of the team.

The next time you disagree with another person, work to get your point across... but do so in a way that helps build a better culture.

Even if you lose a few idea battles, you - and your team - will eventually win the culture war that leads to high performance.

Useful resources:
BlackBird Media
Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry from forklift driver to manager of a 250-employee book plant. He has written more than 30 non-fiction books, including four Business and Investing titles that reached #1 on Amazon's bestseller list.
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