Agreeing to disagree

As a child, Tori Haring-Smith
earned her dessert with
debate, thanks to her father
who encouraged dinnertime

“You did not get dessert and
you couldn’t leave the table
until you’d argued the proposition,” says Haring-Smith, a
third-generation college professor. “And this could be an hour
and a half. The propositions
were things like, ‘The United
Nations is inhibiting rather than
promoting world peace.

Now Haring-Smith brings
that impassioned table talk to
her position as president of
Washington & Jefferson College,
which has a 2008-2009 operating budget of $47 million.
There, she fosters an open
environment by encouraging
her 280 employees to challenge her with their varying

So by the time Haring-Smith
makes a decision for the school
of more than 1,500 students,
she has already considered
most of the alternatives and

Smart Business spoke with
Haring-Smith about how to
encourage healthy debate
among your employees.

Fill your staff with debaters.
open to opposing points of
view. Put people in your senior
staff who will challenge you,
who will debate issues with
you, who won’t just adopt
your point of view, either naturally or to be conciliatory.

You have to hire people who
are smarter than you are. If
you hire people whom you
respect because you believe
they have raw intelligence,
then you will naturally listen to
them. If, when you’re listening
to somebody’s feedback,
you’re thinking, ‘I don’t really
trust this person,’ or, ‘I don’t
respect their intelligence or
their expertise,’ then you’re
going to dismiss what they say.

Part of it is calling references
and not letting the reference
get away with, ‘Yeah, he’s a
nice guy.’ You can get at that
more descriptively by saying,
‘Tell me what this person did
that impressed you the most.’ I
sometimes will ask, ‘If this person stays in your employ
rather than my hiring them,
what would you set as their
goal for the next year?’

I say [to applicants], ‘Tell me
what you think is a primary
challenge confronting this
department. How would you
address it?’ I will poke away at
them. ‘Why would you say
that? Give me an example.’

I will keep pursuing them. I
can tell then whether they’re
going to get defensive.

Explain yourself.
All you need to
do is have a really good
exchange with one person and
then they’ll tell other people,
‘It’s OK; she didn’t fire me for
disagreeing with her.’

I don’t think you just do it;
you explain to people what
you do. You say, ‘I really value
this kind of debate.’

Just today, somebody took a
stance and said, ‘Well, maybe
we could do this.’ I said, ‘Well,
yeah, but here’s the downside
to that. I really don’t have an
opinion; I’m just presenting the
other side.’

The person I was talking to
got a little defensive. I said,
‘Look, you can take my side; I’ll
take your side. I don’t care.
We’re just going to debate this.’

Tell people what you’re
doing. Sometimes I’ll say,
‘Now I have an opinion. This
is not debate anymore. I’ve
listened to the debate, and
here’s the decision.’

People will say, ‘Look, we
can debate this, but my mind’s
not going to change. This is
really fundamental to me.’
That’s OK, and I can do the
same thing.

The good thing is that people, especially in a small group
like a senior staff, get to the
point where they’ll say, ‘Well,
we know that you’re always
going to stand up for this.’
You can get to know each
other that way.