Leadership insight: The zone of uncomfortable debate

Posted by Cranfield School of Management on 18-Jan-2016 15:45:56

Senior managers typically find the executive arena an exacting environment. Not only do high-impact decisions make it emotionally challenging, the strength of opinion and force of personality at the top of the corporate ladder mean discussions often get heated.

In an environment where the verdict of a few has the potential to impact the many, it’s all too easy for discussions to dissolve into hostility, power plays, ridicule, escape mechanisms or delay tactics. It’s therefore critical for management teams to be able to work through the zone of uncomfortable debate (ZOUD).

The following leadership insights are designed to help executives efficiently handle difficult leadership discussions and decisions, in order to unlock competitive advantage and strategic opportunities for their organisations.   

  • Prepare people, process and place. Give people the opportunity to prepare and take diverse roles in discussions. You may want to rotate the Chair, take turns to play the devil’s advocate, and choose different locations to keep things fresh.

  • Make ZOUD discussions a vital skill. Be clear why it’s important for the senior management team to talk about uncomfortable issues. This may involve recognising the natural difficulties everyone experiences, and agreeing rules of engagement to avoid hostility. 

  • Take a stepwise approach. Consider a wealth of factors when it comes to issues and decision-making. You may want to agree what needs to be understood to inform decisions, the decision making options, and the factors which should guide choices.

  • Maintain a productive perspective. Keep a business perspective and focus on issues, to keep a long-term outlook and ensure everyone gets heard. To aid this, you may want proactively nurture a personal external perspective.

  • Act with emotional intelligence and political awareness. Pay attention to your emotions, agendas and those of others. Ask questions to widen your understanding, facilitate progress, and ensure the decision-making process is a two-way street.

  • Leave the ZOUD before leaving the room. Wrap up discussions by summarising the value that’s been unlocked, what’s been achieved and the next steps. Make sure you resolve any difficulties before parting ways, so you don’t harbour negative emotions that can affect decisions in the long-run.  

The ability to work effectively in the ZOUD is a capability that distinguishes effective management teams from the rest. It may even be rare enough to make such teams very special.

How we can help

Within our management school, we believe that leadership is a skill that needs to be honed, developed and nurtured. The Centre for General Management Development (CGMD) offers general management programmes that help managers at key career stages develop into leaders who influence the strategic course of their organisations. The management development courses are:

Click here for more information or download a programme brochure. 

Sign up for more Leadership Insights