How often do you lose arguments? I’m talking about argument in its literal sense (meaning a productive debate), not an overly emotional exchange.  If the answer is “not often,” then you may be doing yourself a tremendous disservice. In fact, one of the best things a business leader (or an aspiring business leader) can learn is to lose arguments. And here’s the surprise: you do this by becoming a truly great arguer! In fact, excellent leaders not only lose arguments themselves, but they build cultures where losing an argument may even be rewarded.

But there’s also a big challenge: becoming a truly great arguer takes tremendous courage, and building a culture of great arguing takes some very significant leadership skill. Let’s take a look at what it means to argue, how this applies to business leaders, and how to summon the courage you need to win by losing.

What’s a great argument and why it can be good to lose?

Last week I saw a thought-provoking TED Talk by philosophy professor Daniel H. Cohen, who studies how we use reason and why we argue. In his TED Talk (“For Argument’s Sake”) Dr. Cohen looks at why the most common way we argue—a “war” in which one person must win and the other must lose—is highly disadvantageous for both parties, and how more constructive forms of argument (and I’d say more courageous forms or argument) are much more productive.

The argument-as-war construct focuses on winning as the ultimate outcome, and usually leads to a “win at all costs” mentality. The problem is that this kind of winning actually robs us of the possibility for learning and growth. By contrast, if we shift the approach away from the binary win-lose scenario, and toward a “constructive argument” (one that focuses on mutual learning as the goal), far more opportunities emerge.

The challenges and benefits of constructive arguing

Constructive argument is actually much more challenging than argument-as-war, for many reasons. It requires more preparation, emphasizes facts and reason, and de-emphasizes performance or tactics—i.e. the kind of performance you might see with a courtroom attorney or certain politicians.

Perhaps most importantly, a constructive approach to argument means that each party must work much harder to understand the subject from the other’s point of view, and come to the table well-prepared to say, “You’re right. I’ve changed my mind. You win.” The payoff, however, is that the loser is actually the “winner,” because he or she walks away from the argument with increased knowledge, understanding, and—in many cases—new opportunities for success.

Applying constructive arguing in the business world

Often the challenge for business leaders is that engaging in a constructive argument can at first look out of place in the highly competitive business world. It requires a willingness to change your mind and potentially admit being wrong—but this really means being open to new ides, and ultimately a great deal of self-confidence and courage. Unfortunately, many business leaders cling to outdated models of leadership that foster a view of the leader as all-knowing, unflappably confident, rigid, and authoritarian. The more sophisticated (and more courageous) leadership models emphasize listening, flexibility, learning, and openness. Constructive arguing is simply a highly developed form of listening, learning, and openness; but again it requires true self-confidence and courage.

Excellent leaders build cultures based on constructive argument

The most effective leaders are not just able to engage in constructive argument themselves, but they also build highly productive cultures where employees also argue constructively, and thereby are able to produce the best business results. Furthermore, a culture built on constructive argument is much better suited to be innovative, and we know innovation is perhaps the most critical factor for success in today’s economy.

Here are some key steps for building the ability to hold constructive arguments into your organization’s culture:

  • Start with you – The foundation for constructive arguments is self-confidence and courage. Start by building your own comfort with losing and learning from argument. Let go of the need to “win at all costs,” and approach every argument with a willingness to change your mind. Often this requires leaders to refocus on the fact that their job isn’t to be right all the time, but rather to lead the organization to the best possible solutions.
  • Model good behavior – Have the courage to let your team witness you lose an argument in a constructive way. Model the behavior of coming into an argument with an open mind, being willing to learn during the experience, and (perhaps most importantly) thanking your “opponent” for providing you with new insight. Demonstrate how you’re better off for the experience and how it leads to new opportunities for the business.
  • Foster a culture of self-confidence and courage – Encourage your team members to stretch themselves. Reward success, but also reward well-planned risk-taking and support them in recovering when they fail. Remember, if there are no failures, then your team probably isn’t stretching itself far enough, and you probably have missed opportunities.
  • Reward the right behavior & don’t accept argument as war – In rewarding your employees, be on the lookout for people who are open to new ideas, and reward them for their contribution. Avoid rewarding only the “winners” in a debate. Be vigilant for any argument-as-war dynamics on your team, and redirect employees to more collaborative and productive approaches.