Argue Your Way To Business Success

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Author, speaker and business executive Rob Waite argues that businesses need to learn how to properly argue before they can succeed.

"Jack" (not his real name) is a vice president of a publicly traded company. Recently, Jack’s stress and anxiety levels have been high enough to impact both his working and his personal lives. (We're using an alias because he’s concerned about his story becoming public … for good reason!)

What, exactly is Jack stressed out about? It's not just another case of burnout and he's not worried about losing his job. Rather, Jack is convinced that his company is adopting the wrong strategy. And he's not alone; some other senior managers feel the same way. As a result, these people are lacking motivation and drive. One was heard to say he hasn't enjoyed his work for months.

So, why aren’t these managers speaking up and arguing their position? The answer is that his company’s culture discourages argument as destructive to team spirit, values and conformity. Because this culture equates differences of opinion with disloyalty, behavior has mutated into a form of “go along to get along.” Significantly, the CEO establishes the culture.

Jack loves his company. He’s worked there for many years and truly wants to see it succeed. But the “Stepford Executives” mentality is really becoming an impediment to success. The CEO is convinced he's moving his company forward because his vice presidents all seem to be right behind him. But the truth is he's shielded himself from knowing that the vice presidents think the new strategy could be taking the company right over the cliff.

For the Sake of an Argument

In this all-too-frequent scenario, all of the players let themselves and each other down. The CEO has been let down by his direct reports because they aren’t speaking up. Consequently, shareholder value is destroyed and the CEO’s career will be ruined. The "go-along-to-get-along" vice presidents are doing themselves a disservice, because their careers will be damaged when the strategy fails. No one wins here.

And it's a shame because a good old-fashioned argument could have turned the situation around. Argument is not a dirty word, and arguing doesn't have to be either caustic or destructive. As a matter of fact, the Oxford English Dictionary defines argue as “1) To put forth reasons for or against; debate 2) To attempt to prove by reasoning.” There’s nothing inherently negative in that definition.

The Argument for Argument

I base my argument that businesses need to learn how to properly argue before they can succeed on two points.

First, people tend not to see things as they really are. We see things as we really are. The things we do, in combination with our experiences, biases and opinions all shape our perceptions of a given situation. That's why we need several points of view argued by different people in order to see the full picture. Besides, none of us has all the answers. The upshot of a well-managed argument is that the solutions, strategies and plans drawn up by the management team will be better thought out and more rigorously scrubbed in search of the best alternatives.

Second, we need to learn how to argue because improper argument and the lack of argument can be destructive to morale and significantly increase worksite politics. Unlike Jack's company, some corporate cultures breed open conflicts where nonstop arguments inevitably turn personal, bitter and sarcastic. In this type of environment, the interests of shareholders are totally lost in the melee and winning an argument becomes an end in itself instead of the means to an end.

The Six Keys to Proper Argument

So how should arguments properly be conducted within companies? There are six keys to arguing properly, beginning with the need to build trust. Trust can be built when team members share a common goal, such as increasing shareholder value.

So, having a common goal or objective is the second key. When each member is working to the same goal, legitimate differences of opinion aren't misinterpreted and healthy exchanges don't turn bitter. Depersonalization (evaluating a position without regard to the characteristics of the person who advances it), therefore, is the third key.

The fourth key is to make arguing an ongoing process. Practice makes perfect. Experience at arguing creates an attitude that says, “let’s debate this so we can get to a good solution that all we can get behind.”

The fifth key is to conduct post mortems on the results of your arguments. This is how you will determine if they lead to good solutions and if not, why not. When a crisis occurs, this helps companies focus on working the problem rather than assigning blame. People should be reassured that identifying the cause of the problem is still important, but must take a backseat to solving the problem. Also, post mortems reduce personalization, because most of the emotion has faded away.

And the sixth key is to develop a thick skin. People who are willing to risk being vulnerable are perceived as being a bigger person. It's important to learn to overcome the emotional tendency to fight back with those who disagree with you and insult you unintentionally – or even intentionally! Keep your eyes on the prize and address any of the pettiness later. If you can do this, you will become a significantly better leader, as well.

About the Author:

Other works by Rob Waite include his hit book “The Lost Art of General Management”, “Walking With The Wise II” and he produced the computer based interactive seminar “The Six Figure Job Search”. In addition to being a writer and speaker, Rob Waite is Vice President of a division of Worthington Industries (NYSE Ticker: WOR).

To learn more about “The Lost Art of General Management”, “Walking With The Wise II”, and “The Six Figure Job Search” please visit For an interview with Rob Waite, please contact Pam Drellow by email at or by phone at 716.386.7656

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Rob Waite