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Improving team discussions

"Is decision-making in your team more like a heated argument or a cool joint problem-solving session?"

When your team has a tricky issue to resolve, or decision to make, what is the team’s most likely response?

  1. People put forward their different views and we try to persuade each other that a particular course is the best way forward. The person with the strongest argument wins, or
  2. We agree, as a team, the criteria that a solution must satisfy. Then we pool our ideas and build several possible solutions. The course of action that best meets the criteria wins.

You may have said “It depends on the issue”, but most teams default to a particular side of the argue-or-analyse divide. And that default position has consequences.


Debate and argument

At one end of the spectrum we have a team that thrives on contesting views. The atmosphere is sharp with cleverness. Think courts of justice, advocacy and adversarial lawyers. People defend their positions, try to persuade others and lobby them to their point of view.

When you spot a weakness in the other side’s argument you use it to discredit their approach, while you don’t mention, or downplay, weaknesses in your own arguments. You listen in order to pick holes in the other position.

In the extreme, you might get upset, angry or personal to score points and win the argument. And that’s the main purpose of the debate – to win the argument.


At the other extreme we have the investigative team. The atmosphere is thoughtful and considerate. The purpose of the discussion is to develop, test and choose between alternatives.

People remain open to different possibilities and build on each other’s suggestions. Active listening is used to elaborate options.

Different viewpoints are welcomed.

Disagreements and different agendas are explored with a view to extending the decision criteria.

Decision-making is a group activity.


Both approaches have virtues. Both have downsides.

Advocacy stresses winners and losers, but competitiveness can give a helpful rigour to the discussion.

On the other hand, it can get personal and cause longer term divisions. It can hide useful information from the team. People can get so committed to particular options that they stop identifying with the team as a whole.

All of these are major downsides.

Problem-solving is more cohesive and considers more options.

But it is longer and more demanding of team members. Take away a sense of individuality and groupthink is always a danger.


On balance, the research shows that the problem-solving approach produces more innovation, better decisions and more collective ownership of the eventual decision.

The quickest guide to your own team’s approach? How your people listen to each other. Are they building possibilities or defending positions?

The real solution is to combine the best from both approaches.

Quick Tip for teams

Improving team decision-making

TeamTalk  and  Action  (30 minutes)  

  1. Take 10 or 15 minutes to discuss your team decision-making culture. Do you have a tendency to debate, with people stating and defending positions? Or is your team more likely to approach a decision as a process of finding a solution to a problem together? What is the balance in your team?
  2. Do you think the balance should shift?
  3. Have a look at a decision-making process below. It has been proven to improve the quality of decisions. It would be too time-consuming to use on day-to-day decisions, but are there aspects of it that your team would benefit using more often?
  4. Keep 10 minutes at the end of your discussion to agree two real actions that your team can take to see if they improve your decision-making. Remember to set timelines for implementing the actions, and give a single person the authority and responsibility for getting them implemented.
  5. Review your progress in 3 months' time.