What Can We Learn from the Debate between President Trump and the NFL Players

Posted by Allan Steinmetz on 26 September 2017

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This past week there has been a firestorm of controversy in regard to President Trump’s lashing out at NFL players who kneel in protest during the national anthem. The reaction is playing out on TV network broadcasts, social media, including Twitter. It is reported that there were as many as 3.8 million tweets on Sunday alone on this topic. It seems we cannot have a civil conversation with friends or colleagues without some debate of who was right, who was wrong, what is the real focus of the protests and the racial divisiveness it has created.

How can people have civil discourse and create a culture of healthy debate while maintaining respect for the other’s opinions? How does one create a culture of tolerance, diversity of opinion and respect for other points of view. This question does not only reside in our living rooms, but also in our boardrooms.

Last spring, I dealt with this topic of diverse opinions and creating a healthy culture of debate within business. I am posting it again because I think the ideas conveyed in this piece are relevant to what we are all experienced today regarding the debate of NFL players, kneeling during the national anthem and our own president's reaction and response.

Posted by Inward in March 2017

A culture of healthy debate is vital for any successful organization. Ideally, debate will result from a diversity of ideas and perspectives, and the resulting discussion would improve the end product/service. However, in reality, debate can often be a difficult and anxiety-inducing process. In some cases, certain control-oriented managers may even discourage debate, preferring a hierarchical structure of decision-making with infrequent subordinate input.

Our team recently read an intriguing article about how Steve Jobs promoted debate within the Apple culture. His insightful analogy for workplace debate is included below, but you can read the entire piece here: http://nbcnews.to/2nEVbzt

“Steve Jobs once told the story of going over to a neighbor's house as a kid. The neighbor asked him to collect rocks in the yard. Steve collected a few and handed them over to the neighbor, who threw them into a tin can with some liquid and sandy grit, shut the lid, and turned on a motor which rotated the can. Over a terrible racket, the neighbor asked Steve to come back the next day. When he returned, the neighbor turned off the rock tumbler and pulled out the stones. Steve was astounded to see how beautiful they had become, polished and shiny. Years later, he likened debate on a team to that rock tumbler. There's a lot of noise, a lot of friction, but out of that process, sometimes painful, come these beautiful polished stones. Both the work and the people who do the work get polished.”

Inward Strategic Consulting is fond of using analogies for complex business ideas, and this example is no exception. It suggests that debate can often create friction between team members; but if you approach the process in the right way, the end result will be better than the original idea, and the debating employees will have learned new perspectives as a result. This is a powerful concept, because this system encourages healthy debate to become a key aspect for improving the product/service, while enhancing the knowledge and skillset of the employees involved. This is a win-win for both the product/service, and for improving employee engagement.


However, a culture of healthy debate requires a few guidelines and baseline expectations for it to remain “healthy” debate. Without these guidelines, unhinged debate can easily descend from productive to rancorous. On the other end of the spectrum, environments that discourage all forms of debate can suffer from this rigid restriction. Employees would avoid speaking their mind and voicing a concern for fear of reprimand from a higher up. This would then lead to lower quality products/services, fewer learning opportunities for employees, and a culture of fear that would be especially unappealing to the inherently collaborative millennial workforce.

To encourage healthy and productive debate, we recommend the following strategies:

1.            Establish expectations about debate from the outset. During the interview, onboarding, or training process, outline the expectations for how your company approaches debate. At McKinsey Consulting, a core value explained to all new hires is the "obligation to dissent." The idea is that if you disagree with something, or if you have a different perspective on a debate, it is your obligation to speak up regardless of your experience level or title. While this level of debate may not be appropriate for every company, the important part is that this expectation is clearly articulated and demonstrated from the outset.

2.            Encourage employees to rely on data or sourced material when presenting an idea. Data, facts, and figures strengthen any opinion. Encouraging data-backed analysis is helpful for a culture of debate because it can often “level the playing field”, and avoid situations where the debate descends into a difference of opinion, rather than a discussion of the facts.

3.            For junior members of a team working with senior members, remember to caveat your opinions. The senior members of a team generally have more experience to back up their opinions. For that reason, these leaders can sometimes feel disrespected by junior members of their team when an opinion is expressed that goes against their own. Additionally, these more experienced employees are oftentimes members of the baby boomer generation, whose education was more instructor-driven and hierarchical. Newer millennial employees experienced a more collaborative and peer-oriented education, where they were encouraged to express their opinions and form persuasive, data-backed arguments with their peers and teachers. As millennials transition into the workplace, this switch from peer-focused work to hierarchical teams is most likely the reason that millennials have gotten the reputation as being “entitled and opinionated”. To combat this notion, millennials can learn to soften their opinions by caveating with a disarming “this is just my opinion”, and being sure to acknowledge and reference the opinions of more senior members as much as possible.

4.            Understand when a debate should be public or private. In some cases, debate occurs best in an open environment where all team members can participate. In other circumstances, the nature of the situation, or the feelings of other members of the team may necessitate that the debate occur in a one-on-one setting.

5.            Know when to step away from debate, and when to continue it. In debate, as much as we may attempt to reach a consensus opinion, there are some situations where one opinion will be chosen over the others. In most cases, it is vital for the team to move on from the debate and accept the chosen decision. However, if it is a circumstance where the chosen decision will later result in more problems, it is important for employees to be able to continue to express their opinion or concern without fear of reprimand, provided that they have the data or analysis to justify their continued opposition.

6.            Pick your battles. There is a happy medium for the amount of debate that should occur. If there is no debate, issues may go unspoken. On the other hand, if there is too much debating occurring within day-to-day processes, it impedes the ability of the team to actually execute and adopt the decisions that are made. Similarly, an individual who debates too often can get the reputation as a complainer or trouble starter.

Does your team have any other ideas for promoting a culture of healthy debate? We’d love to hear from you, shoot us an email at asteinmetz@inwardconsulting.com if you’d like to “continue this debate”.

I hope this current debate remains civil and respectful of people's opinions and we resolve our differences in peace and harmony.