Controversial topics are topics that elicit strong emotions, have little or no effort invested into resolution, and unequal participation.
Whether you’re a coach or manager, recognizing controversial topics is crucial because dealing with controversial topics is expensive, difficult, and painful to all involved parties. But because controversial topics are an inherent aspect of working in large product and tech companies, where diverse teams and multiple layers of leadership coexist, you need to learn to navigate them and how to enable groups to make controversial topics non-controversial.
Why do controversial topics exist?
For starters, people have different backgrounds, values, and ideologies which leads to different preferences. In addition, hierarchical structures within larger companies can lead to differing priorities among different leadership layers and roles. For example, where a VP focuses on capital investment, cultivating high-level leaders, and shaping strategy, Engineering Managers prioritize employee motivation, recruitment, team performance, delivery, and dealing with escalations. And Directors, positioned between these two levels, grapple with political dynamics, budget and headcount, team leadership development, and transforming abstract strategy into tangible objectives for teams to embrace and execute upon.
These differences paired with low empathy result in controversial topics, often when different layers or groups meet.
If you’re coaching in such a landscape, recognizing controversial topics is essential for aligning your coaching interventions with the needs and capabilities of the groups you’re working with. Without doing so you’ll likely amplify tensions and create divides. Therefore, let’s explore how to recognize whether a topic is controversial or not, and then look at what you might be able to do to help make a topic less controversial.
Recognizing controversial topics
To recognize a controversial topic, consider the engagement level and the effort being put in. Engagement refers to both the strength of emotions and level of participation. Stronger emotional responses to a topic may suggest that it is more controversial, but it doesn’t have to be. Additionally, unequal participation (in conversation or action) also hints at a topic possibly being controversial.
Effort levels are another important aspect in understanding the level of controversy of a topic. A group might be discussing a topic, but unless they’re willing to invest time into learning and trying things out, the topic is controversial. Or at least, it’s more controversial than one which they’re taking action on.
The controversial topic ladder
To assess effort, consider the following five-level ladder:
- Ignoring: The group disregards an issue entirely.
- Discussing: The group discusses an issue, but takes no action.
- Searching for information: The group actively seeks information but hasn’t acted yet.
- Taking action: The group takes action, regardless of success.
- Taking repeated action: The group reflects on failures and iterates upon them.
Less controversial topics are higher up the ladder. Coaches should focus on non-controversial topics, and align with the team’s interests. Pay attention to the team’s requests for support, and the topic’s level of controversiality.
To move a topic up the ladder, provide relevant materials for the team to consume. If they’re unwilling to search for information about a topic, they likely won’t take action either. Alternatively, break down complex issues into smaller, digestible problems.
This an area I see many coaches struggling with (myself included), where coaches believe one topic to be important, while the group is trying to solve another problem. So coaches bring topics to the table which the group does not want to recognize. As a coach in large tech companies, identifying controversial topics and understanding how controversial they are is crucial. Focus on non-controversial topics that align with the team’s agenda and help them progress up the effort ladder to effectively navigate and address these issues.
Take a moment to identify a current controversial topic within your team; now brainstorm one small, actionable step to move it up the effort ladder.