Healthy Teams Understand the Difference between Healthy Debate and Dysfunctional Arguments: “Getting the Moose on the Table!”


moose-195This past Monday evening this leader was so proud of our Ministry Team. Let me set the context of my statement. Many people agree that they would desire to function as part of a team but they do not like the messiness of collaboration and debate that is necessary in being part of a healthy team. One of my Professors, Dr. Roger Heuser, at Vanguard University once said, “Strong management teams fiercely debate options, challenge each other’s thinking, and find the optimum approaches hidden in the grey area between both sides of tough issues. That takes trust, emotional intelligence, and courage.” I experienced with our team this past Monday evening and in going through this process the team came up with some powerful outcomes. Some of the ways in my experience leaders avoided healthy debate which kept their teams functioning more as groups were:

  •  Things were often left unsaid at their meetings and disagreements went underground.
  • Complaining, criticizing, and talking about each outside of the meetings and behind other leader’s backs.
  • Difficult feedback or problems one leader was having with another were often not given directly and openly to that person.
  • Disagreements became arguments with disrespectful or angry undertones and condescending editorial comments.
  • A few of the most vocal leader’s hogged airtime, dominated discussions, and lectured the others.
  • Lack of response or silence was often mistaken as agreement.

What are the different characteristics between dysfunctional arguments and healthy debate? Graham Garrison a Leadership Coach and Educator has given a list of characteristics that I have used for the past three years. They are:[1]

Dysfunctional Arguments

  • Not listening before jumping in and cutting others off.
  • “Yeah, but” responses that don’t probe to understand where the other person is coming from or hear their views.
  • Grandstanding, lecturing, boasting, or showcasing personal/departmental achievements as the gold standard others need to achieve.
  • Biting, sarcastic, impatient, or angry tones — often greeted with eye rolling and disengagement.
  • Using absolutes like “always,” “never,” “everyone,” etc., with few shades of grey.
  • Not giving credit or acknowledging accomplishments or progress.
  • Refusing to move from a preset position.
  • Obstinate, contrariness, and constantly playing the devil’s advocate.

Healthy Debates

  • Focusing on the issue, problem, or behavior, not the person.
  • Guiding the discussion back on track when it wanders or moves off topic.
  • Assuming the other person has good intentions and wants a positive outcome.
  • Acknowledging and naming personal emotions and feelings.
  • Empathy and seeking to understand the other point of view.
  • Anchoring personal and group behaviors to the team or organization’s agreed upon values, ground rules, or norms.
  • Encouraging and supporting everyone to speak up.
  • More questioning and probing and less telling and lecturing.
  • Clarifying by seeking more information and clearing up points of confusion.
  • Reconciling opposing points of view, linking similar ideas, and looking for common ground.
  • Probing contrary points of view if everyone seems to be in agreement too quickly or easily. Are we really in agreement or avoiding conflict?

By fostering healthy debate and being committed to transparency leads to teams becoming more effective. By the way …. I am really proud of our team!

[1] GARRISON, GRAHAM. 2011. Team Building: Healthy Debates versus Dysfunctional Arguments. The Journal of Healthcare Contracting.


About PastorAl

Al Soto has been married to his incredible wife Valerie for 30 years and they have five sons and one grandson. Al has been in Local Church Ministry for 35 years as both as a Lead Pastor, Associate Pastor, and for five years as a Regional Overseer for his denomination. He has a BA degree from LIFE Pacific College and is currently completing an MA in Leadership & Spiritual Formation from Vanguard University. He currently resides in Lincoln, CA where he is the new Lead Pastor for one of the Campus locations for Bayside Church. He continues to coach High School Football for the Lincoln Fighting Zebras for the Junior Varsity Program and is facilitating Leadership training and coaching as well as facilitating Spiritual Retreats. His hobbies include Golfing and Scuba Diving as well as he is a veracious reader. His Life Statement is “Real Success is Helping others to Succeed!”
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