Equal Terms

In a recent episode of her podcast, Brené Brown had an insightful discussion with Simon Sinek and Adam Grant. Toward the end of the discussion, when asked what would be the single thing he hopes would change in the organizational culture of companies, Adam Grant said:

“I am so tired of the person who talks the most in the meeting or asserts their ideas with the most gusto, being the one who ends up dominating the decision-making.”

So, here are three ideas to experiment with in your next decision-making meeting, inspired by Adam Grant’s accurate observation. This week’s ideas work best when bundled together, but it is up to you to experiment and refine them based on your needs and context.

Written Arguments

Most people would probably find it strange to write their arguments before a meeting. After all, we are having the discussion to talk, so why waste time writing what we are about to say? Well, there are at least two excellent reasons to do so.

First, when you write your arguments, you have a chance to review and refine them. You have an opportunity to consider how to build your ideas logically, which data supports them, and how to phrase them so you can communicate them effectively. No less important, you have a chance to change your mind (or add another perspective) even before sharing your ideas with others.

But to Adam Grant’s point, starting the discussion with written arguments creates more equal terms. When the discussion begins with all the participants able to read each other’s views and ideas before the meeting, the chances of someone hijacking the meeting and others falling into the trap of mistaking confidence with the quality of the idea are much smaller.

When you set up a decision-making discussion, ask everyone to present their perspective and proposal in writing and share it before the meeting. Ask everyone to read each other’s arguments in preparation for the meeting. This will create the setup for a better equalized face-to-face discussion. Next, structure the meeting to leverage this starting point.

Structured and Timed Discussion

A collection of written arguments will rarely replace a face-to-face, real-time discussion. But this part of the communication flow can also be made more equal to avoid one person dominating the conversation. The key is to structure the discussion and leverage the preparation already done.

For the discussion to be on equal terms, every participant who had an idea should be able to present it. All other participants should have the opportunity to challenge it. The argument, the rationale, and the supporting data were already shared in writing, so the meeting can be highly effective, but it must be strictly facilitated based on rules set in advance.

Here’s one example of structuring such a meeting:

  • Each participant presents their idea based on their written account for no more than 5 minutes.
  • Then, the other participants can ask questions or challenge the idea for 10 minutes.
  • Next, the idea owner has 10 minutes to respond to the challenges before moving to the next idea.

The time dedicated to each part of the discussion can vary, of course, based on the complexity of the issue at stake, but the time limitation must be set in advance and applied to all ideas and participants. If everyone does their homework before the meeting, the discussion can be highly effective and focus on the challenges and points of conflict instead of on understanding the perspectives and ideas of each other.

Finally, after all the arguments are presented and challenged, it’s time to make a decision.

Voting

It sounds unnatural. Voting? In a business organization based on hierarchy? Well, think about it for a second. You have a team of professionals. You hired them because they are skilled. They will all be affected by the decision and have professional views that can affect the outcome. So, why not let them decide?

Once again, the rules of the game must be clear. We take a vote, and all the participants are committed to the decision from that minute and do their best to make it work. All votes are equal, and none of them matters once the decision is made.

Of course, a real-world scenario might be more nuanced. You might have another round of discussion where people can refine their arguments based on the challenges posed. You can have check-out points where decisions can be re-evaluated and changed. The goal of this decision-making flow, from writing the arguments to voting, is to try to normalize the discussion and create equal opportunity for different people with different perspectives to be heard and influence the outcome.

This flow is just one option, but any process you craft must be intentful and focus on the value of hearing different voices and avoiding irrelevant (or even destructive) bias.

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