Friday, September 4, 2015

In the 1860 presidential election, Abraham Lincoln faced heated debates and conflicts with other men running for president. As Doris Kearns Goodwin eloquently writes about in the her award-winning book Team of Rivals, after being elected, Lincoln didn’t look past his opponents’ differences, he embraced them. He made three of his fiercest critics cabinet members in his administration - not despite their opposing views - but perhaps precisely because they disagreed. What made Lincoln a remarkable person and one-of-a-kind leader wasn’t just his ability to persuade others, but his ability to listen and learn from others - even those that vehemently disagreed.

The same principle applies to high-functioning teams and effective classrooms. Teamwork is not just about singing Kumbaya around a campfire or falling into each other’s arms during a trust building exercise. Teamwork also is about sharing different perspectives, having the courage to hold each other accountable, and having the opportunity to disagree. Watch any winning sporting team and you will see players clearly telling other players what they think and coaches visibly disagreeing with how a situation was handled.

I have the pleasure of participating in several school leadership meetings and visiting classrooms in a wide variety of school districts. I never worry about the teams or classrooms that have open disagreement - even when emotions run high at times. In fact, I am more concerned by meetings and lessons where people sit quietly and just wait for the boss/teacher to tell them what to do. Many high school students in particular go through a phase where they want to challenge almost everything. So, instead of just fighting that tendency, I suggest we leverage it, channel it, and perhaps most importantly, explicitly teach it.

Dr. Robert Marzano, an iconic researcher of effective educational strategies, calls this a cognitive skill and contends: “When students understand the general framework for a well-supported claim, they can more effectively present and support their own claims.” In fact, in his book, Classroom Instruction that Works: Research-based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement he reports that this one strategy yields 23 gains in student achievement. Really, the point is simple: Let’s not just teach students and employees what to think. Let’s teach them how to think and challenge them to sharpen their ability to communicate their own thoughts.

Whether it’s in a board room or a classroom, suppose you were given one hour to take a position on one of the below issues:
  1. Should there be mandatory year-round schooling for all students?
  2. Should football be allowed as a high school sport because of the risk of injury to players?
  3. Should teacher pay be based on student test scores?
How would you go about making and supporting your position? Would you try to find facts that support your claim? Would you contact other people? Would you try to find counterpoints to your position? Would you collaborate with others in forming your argument? Would you have to synthesize a lot of information from various sources quickly to present it in a logical, compelling way? Would you use technology to do all of the above? I’m guessing the answer to most, if not all, of these questions is yes.

In the classroom, a teacher might ask open-ended questions, such as the following:
  1. Should nuclear power be used as a source of energy? (MS/HS Science and/or World History)
  2. Would you rather have a job that guaranteed you a salary of $100,000 for the rest of your life or a job that had a starting salary of $65,000 with guaranteed 5% raise each year. (Middle School Math)
  3. Do dogs have feelings like people? (Elementary Language Arts)
  4. What suggestions do you have on how we can make our classroom more productive? (K-12)
For students, this exercise will certainly open the door to discussions about the mechanics and methods of making a good argument. For adults, this topic lends itself to conversations about what makes a high-functioning team.

We also know that not all arguments are healthy or yield better outcomes. So, before your classroom or conference room starts looking like an episode of The Jerry Springer Show, I offer these suggestions on how to bring more healthy debate to your environment:
  1. Establish “Norms”
    There is a difference between disagreeing and just being disagreeable. When someone disagrees, it should feel like they are challenging the position or approach on a specific topic. When someone is being disagreeable, it feels like they are attacking the person or group of people. To help create the former without the latter, openly talk about how people should and should not disagree. Create meeting or debate “norms” that acknowledge that disagreeing is necessary, but also guides the right way to go about it. Sample meeting norms might include
    • Everyone participate.
    • No one dominate.
    • If you don’t agree, it is your responsibility to speak up.
    • Listen carefully to understand.
    • Talk with others, not over others.
    • Laughing is highly encouraged. But, laugh with people, never at.  
  2. Choose Carefully What Topics to Debate
    Although fostering discussion and debate is healthy, debating every issue can be exhausting and can ultimately cause people to withhold opinions for when they really matter. If you ask ten adults in a meeting what color paper to use when printing a meeting agenda, you might get 10 opinions. But, that doesn’t mean you need to debate the topic until you have some consensus with the group. When these type of disagreements surface, just make an executive decision or pick someone that gets to decide - even if it involves flipping a coin. Likewise, in the classroom, there will be some topics that aren’t up for debate. Save people’s energy and passion for the topics that really matter.

  3. Role Play
    Instead of asking people if they agree with an idea, ask questions like: 
    • Everyone write down at least one argument on why the idea is bad and be ready to share with the group. 
    • Everyone write down at least one argument on why the idea is good and be ready to share with the group. 
    • Suppose we want to really mess up this idea, what we would do to make it go terribly?
    • Suppose we were going to do this, how would we go about it? 
    Be clear that this isn’t an exercise on seeing who agrees or disagrees; it’s an exercise to help everyone see the problem from as many perspectives as possible.

  4. Let the Best Idea Win
    I know that we live in a world where we like to declare winners and losers. And, certainly if you are an attorney or arguing in a debate club, you want the ruling to go in your favor. However, the purpose of most real-world arguments isn’t really about you being declared the winner; it’s about finding the best answer to a question or solution to a problem. So, when teaching people how to argue, it’s equally important that we encourage people to not only be good at convincing others, but also be good at being convinced. This requires listening to learn from others, seeking compromise, and not just finding what’s wrong with an idea, but finding what is right about it. Often, the best idea or course of action isn’t at the extreme of either position. The sweet spot is often the middle ground. Also, good ideas that are poorly implemented can actually end up more damaging than bad ideas that are implemented well. Arguments are not always about picking between two paths; sometimes it’s about creating a new path and ensuring you are fully prepared to go down that path.

  5. Move Your Meetings to the Parking Lot
    We’ve all had parking lot conversations. After spending two hours in a meeting, you walk out of the meeting to find yourself standing by a car telling someone what you really think. This may be because you didn’t feel you had the opportunity to voice the concerns in the meeting and becomes a way to vent frustration. But, these conversations don’t just undermine the team’s decision made in the meeting; they undermine the team itself. So, to keep this from happening, you can either move your meetings to the parking lot (not very practical) or create the time and culture within your meetings for those conversations to occur. This is true both in the conference room and for the classroom. 
So, the next time you have a topic of disagreement in your office or in your classroom, borrow from the remarkable wisdom and leadership of Lincoln. Avoid, the temptation to control and kill the conflict immediately and instead embrace it. The fact that you are arguing is a testament to the fact that you have a team with different perspectives (which is a good thing) and, perhaps most importantly, evidence that your team cares.
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