Working through Disagreement: 7 Approaches to a Divided Review Team

12/17/2019

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t want your review team to always agree. Agreement is helpful for efficient decision-making, but in the long-term, it can lead to laziness, a lack of motivation, and uninspired ideas. Allowing for a divided review team, while sometimes uncomfortable, can also be necessary for keeping team members motivated and engaged. 

Fostering healthy disagreement on your review team will ensure that all team members feel able to voice their opinions and generate new ideas. That said, facilitating disagreement to get to a decision requires patience, deep listening, and planning ahead.

The following tips will help you make the most of your review team’s differences in opinion: 

1. Establish criteria ahead of time

Before your review team discusses submissions it’s important to establish the criteria you want all team members to use as they review submissions. If possible, invite your review team to weigh in on this criteria. When team members are able to help shape the general guidelines that will determine a submission’s quality, they will be more invested in referring back to these guidelines when disagreement comes up later.

Be sure that the criteria is specific enough to support the mission, goals, and aesthetic of your organization, but broad enough to allow for some risk taking and innovative decisions. Additionally, making decisions about which criteria to prioritize or give greater consideration to will make discussions about final decisions clearer, even among a divided review team. 

2. Organize a smart review process

When making decisions about your review team’s process, you will want to consider how many submissions you expect to receive, how many team members are available, and how much time you have to review the submissions. Include your team members in the conversation about process; their other commitments and ideas about process will help to make it efficient and workable for everyone.

When using submission software like Submittable, be sure to auto-assign submissions to save time on manual sorting. For multi-step review processes, using Review Workflow can help keep things moving smoothly. Also, consider scoring submissions as a part of your review process—especially if you have a small team or a lot of submissions. 

3. Consider special priorities ahead of time

Even when your team has an established process and clear criteria, each submission period will call for unique considerations. Whether you are reviewing writing for a themed issue, prioritizing new grant seekers over previous grantees, or selecting scholarship applications with a particular focus, be sure to clarify priorities that might not fit into your general criteria.

Consider the decision-making power each team member will have; for example, decide whether individuals will be able to champion submissions or veto them. When appropriate, determine whether outside feedback (from readers or grantees, for example) should factor into your goals or decision-making process. 

4. Designate a facilitator

For conversations about final decisions, it is important to have a facilitator to ensure that all voices are heard and to mediate a potentially divided review team. Ideally, the facilitator will not be someone with authority over team members, and will not make final decisions for team members. Rather, a good facilitator will work to foster open communication, active listening, and problem solving among team members.

Depending on group dynamics, you might want to have one facilitator at all team meetings, or you might want to rotate the facilitator role to give all team members experience in helping resolve disagreement.

5. Utilize best practices for negotiation

Setting a culture for open, healthy disagreement begins by explicitly welcoming disagreement and asking all team members to actively participate in the decision-making process. Best practices for engaging in healthy debate include: 

  • Active Listening: Listening carefully to all team members ideas and opinions will help you understand their priorities. Rather than simply waiting for someone to finish speaking so you can argue your point, listen for concerns you might share, or ideas you are curious about.
  • Mediating, Not Mandating: In the event that issues facing a divided review team seem entrenched, a facilitator should not make decisions for the team. Rather, the facilitator should mediate any tension or conflict by trying to better understand where each person is coming from. 
  • Asking Open-Ended Questions: Asking questions that do not allow for a “yes” or “no” response will give the entire review team more information about a particular opinion. A detailed response will also keep the conversation moving forward and can often lead to follow-up questions and engagement from other team members. 
  • Encouraging Problem-Solving: Facilitators should not try to problem-solve for team members. Rather, team members should be encouraged to generate their own ideas for how to resolve the disagreement by talking openly about what their priorities are and what they are willing to compromise on.

6. Ask smart questions

Asking open-ended questions is the best way to understand team members’ priorities. Examples of questions to ask include: 

  • Which submissions are you championing and why?
  • What are your priorities and how would you rank them?
  • What changes would need to be made to make a particular decision acceptable to you?
  • How might making one decision influence making a different decision in the future?
  • What ideas do you have about how to make this decision?

7. Reframe power plays

When opinions are in gridlock, team members might resort to “fact-based” or emotional arguments. These arguments may lay out a series of reasons for why one opinion is the only correct opinion, or they might call into question whether something is “fair.” The facilitator should work to reframe these kinds of statements among the members of a divided review team.

For example, you might ask additional open-ended questions, or rephrase what you are hearing to include common priorities or values in the differing opinions you hear. These strategies will help you minimize the points of contention, emphasize areas of agreement, and open the discussion up again. Be sure to check in with team members who are not as vocal to ask them what they think. This might also have the added benefit of bringing new considerations into the conversation. 

Ultimately, embracing disagreement on your review team will make your team stronger and better at making bold decisions. However, it’s important to be patient. Creating a culture where healthy disagreement is welcome will take time because not everyone on a team will be comfortable with this right away.

By continually modeling acceptance of varying viewpoints, even members of a divided review team will all see themselves as valuable. With lots of practice in deep listening and asking open-ended questions, review teams will be able to use their disagreements to fuel any needed changes in the decision-making process or in the organization’s goals overall. 

Strategizing your review team’s process? You may also be interested in resources for ensuring inclusivity and encouraging soft skills.

Emily Withnall

Emily Withnall is a freelance writer and editor. She also teaches poetry in public schools in the Missoula area as well as at the Missoula County Detention Center. Some of her work is available at emilywithnall.com.