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Lucy Ball is a leadership coach and facilitator

Heated executive discussions- sitting in the fire

I am privileged to observe and support Executive teams as they grapple with tricky complex decisions. In these discussions I am fascinated by how Executive teams handle uncertainty, diversity of views and in particular, the heat of disagreement.

The brilliance of a good team lies in its ability to bring individual strengths and insights to bear on a problem in order to open up solutions that no individual could generate alone. But many teams struggle to have the quality of discussion they could because the tension and heat of a robust discussion is too difficult to handle.

It is my view that the skill of sitting in the fire of a heated discussion is directly related to the collective intelligence of an executive team. Engaging with our differences is essential to group decision-making but generates tricky emotions for us to deal with in a professional context – anger, frustration, fear. Too often these get driven underground because they are not bearable in the boardroom.

I see three common ways in which executive teams avoid uncomfortable tension to the detriment of good discussion. The first is the ‘pseudo-close’ in which the team members or team leader shut down discussion too soon. This false close does not really move the issue forward but it increases comfort. The second is that groups stay in open discussion but hold back from really engaging with each other’s points for fear of heating up the atmosphere. The metaphor that springs to mind is of cogs turning in a machine but without the teeth of the cogs interlocking and therefore exerting influence on each other. The third is to take it offline which can be necessary to keep to time but often denies the whole group input into the issue and arguably misses the opportunity of building the group’s muscles around disagreement.

Learning to sit in the fire of robust discussion is an advanced skill. Many organisations recognise this and have developed ways to encourage it. McKinsey’s values include the obligation to dissent. Uber has identified fierceness as a company value and going toe to toe with colleagues as an example of good behaviour.

Arnold Mindell’s work in high tension community groups is recommended reading for facilitators. His book Sitting in the Fire explores transformation through using conflict and diversity to solve entrenched problems. Although Mindell is primarily concerned with cultural diversity in community transformation, the lessons are transferable for executive teams. If we don’t find a way to get safely angry about our differences then we are missing out on the power of our diversity.

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