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Volume 15, Issue 28;   July 15, 2015: Ethical Debate at Work: Part II

Ethical Debate at Work: Part II

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Outcomes of debates at work sometimes favor one party, not only at the expense of the other or others, but also at the expense of the organization. Here's Part II of a set of guidelines for steering debates toward wise outcomes.
President Obama meets with Congressional leaders

President Obama meets with Congressional leaders to discuss the fiscal cliff and a balanced approach to the debt limit and deficit reduction, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on November 16, 2012. Over the years, the history of budget negotiations among the parties has been dotted with threats and brinksmanship, in a series of attempts by one side or another to intimidate the other and "win." It's difficult to argue that the results of these tactics have been productive for anyone involved. Official White House photo by Pete Souza.

Ethical debate at work is the activity most likely to produce outcomes consistent with organizational health and personal wellbeing. Last time, we recommended that debate participants share what they know about the issue at hand, and avoid using rhetorical fallacies. We continue now with recommendations for adopting constructive tactics and avoiding some of the more toxic tactics.

Acknowledge truths
Disputing a debate partner's assertion when you know it's true is disingenuous at best, and probably outright dishonest. For example, objecting to a claim because it's invalid in a few cases might be technically correct, but it's misleading. A more ethical stance would be arguing that the claim is too broad, and suggesting a search for a mutually acceptable formulation.
Acknowledging truths in your debate partner's arguments can begin a search for common ground. It contributes to joint problem solving, steering away from a sequence of attacks and counterattacks.
Identify misconceptions
When your debate partner is operating under a misconception — a factual or logical error — identify it, even if doing so strengthens your debate partner's position. Failing to identify it can be tempting because no action is required. Identifying the misconception can guide the debate toward sturdy, valid outcomes. That goal is in jeopardy if one of the debaters is confused.
Take care, though. Pointing out misconceptions can seem like personal criticism. Tread carefully.
Don't use personal power
Danger lies in overwhelming or disarming your debate partner by using your own personal attributes, such as political power, attractiveness, physical size, intellectual capabilities, technical knowledge, or charm. Using force or seduction to compel your debate partner to accept your position probably is not in the interest of the organization.
Respect your debate partner as you would yourself like to be respected.
Don't threaten
Any tactic Respect your debate partner as you
would yourself like to be respected
that exploits the emotional state of your debate partner could bias the outcome of the debate relative to what would have resulted from a debate focused solely on the merits of the issue. In addition to threats, avoid attacking, accusing, condescending, or intentionally confusing or flustering your debate partner.
Intentionally creating in your debate partner any emotional state that interferes with clear thinking is ethically questionable. It can lead to outcomes inferior for the organization because they don't fairly represent your partner's interests.
Avoid bribery
Offering goods, services, information, or anything of value in exchange for concessions is ethically questionable, and might even be criminal. What is less clear, though, is the ethics of offering concessions in one debate in exchange for receiving concessions in another.
Such exchanges might benefit all parties to the debate, but harm the organization, because neither of the debates will have been decided on their merits.

Whether any action is ethical can be difficult to decide. One useful test is to ask yourself whether you'd like the world (or your boss, or your CEO) to know what you've done. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Down in the Weeds: Part I  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

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