As a child, Tori Haring-Smith earned her dessert with debate, thanks to her father who encouraged dinnertime debate.
“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. Argue.’”
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 perspectives.
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 arguments.
Smart Business spoke with Haring-Smith about how to encourage healthy debate among your employees.
Fill your staff with debaters.
Be 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.
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.
Find the common ground.
You have to find what the common ground of the decision is. You have to be very obvious. What we all want is the health and security of our students. So starting from that, here is the decision that I’ve made, and I made this decision because I think it promotes the health and security of students the best. You can disagree, but at least there’s a reason why it was made.
Consensus is the agreement to disagree. Consensus is not a group hug. You work at it by saying, ‘Where do we agree? What’s our common denominator?’
When we’re sitting around the senior staff table, we can disagree all we like. But when we walk out of the room and we’ve made a decision, it’s like America has now elected a president; we agree to abide by that.
You can come back to me privately and say, ‘I really think you made the wrong decision,’ but you can’t go out publicly and say that. If the administration doesn’t act with a single voice, then everybody gets confused, and people begin to play one person off against another.
But that doesn’t mean that the next week that the staff is together, somebody won’t say, ‘I really think we need to look at this because it’s eating at me.’ And we can back down and talk about it again. So you build in time for that.
The challenge is not so much around the senior staff table as when you’re working one to 120, so you’re talking to the entire faculty. You have to step back and say, ‘Look, I understand that you want X. I want X, too, but you’ve got to see the larger financial picture here. We just can’t go there, or we can only go part-way there.’
You have to always start with, ‘You and I are on the same page at some point. We have the same goal. What we’re arguing is means.’
HOW TO REACH: Washington & Jefferson College, (724) 503-1001 or www.washjeff.edu