Leadership, Workplace Meetings, Healthy Debate — Lessons from ’12 Angry Men’ Movie

12 Angry Men movie is about 12 jurors from distinctive backgrounds meeting in a room to discuss the murder trial of an 18-year old boy from a slum charged with stabbing his father to death.

Image from Wikipedia.org

What lessons did I observe in the movie?

1.0 THE IMPORTANCE OF A DEBATE CULTURE

In the opening scenes, juror eight alone votes for “non-guilty.” Other jurors are annoyed and started targeting him.

The 10th Juror asks Juror 8, “What do you want?”

Juror 8 replies, “Nothing. I just want to talk(discuss and debate)”

Juror 10 asks, “Do you believe his story?”

Juror 8, “I don’t know whether I believe it or not. It’s not easy for me to raise my hand and send the boy off to die without talking about it first.”

At the workplace, it is necessary to debate ideas/solutions before choosing and executing them. Kim Scott writes that if you skip the debate phase, you’ll make worse decisions. As a leader, you may have a fair idea of the best solution. Yet, you have to make sure that debate happens and that there’s a culture of debate on your team.

As juror 8 says — It doesn’t matter whether the leader believes in the idea or not. The debate should happen.

Once Steve Jobs said that when a team debated, both the ideas and the people came out more beautiful — results worth all the friction and noise.

2.0 OBLIGATION TO DISSENT

In the movie — after entering the jury room, jurors began talking to each other. Some of them mentioned the case as a clear one(a kind of open and shut case). Their comments appeared as if they’re trying to pound their beliefs into other’s minds.

When voting began, seven to eight hands went up immediately for voting “guilty”. Slowly, other jurors too raised their hands except for Juror 8.

Juror 8 was only the dissenting voice.

Dissent is critical for productive debate.

If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking — General Patton.

At McKinsey, if everyone around the table agreed, that was a red flag. They will force somebody to take up the dissenting voice. It spurred effective discussion and sharpening of ideas/solutions.

Kim Scott writes, “One McKinsey executive had a bunch of gavels made up with “duty to dissent” written. He’d slide the gavel across the table to someone, as a sign to take up the opposite point of view. He found that it was surprisingly effective.”

Kim Scott adds, “McKinsey had very consciously created an “obligation to dissent.”

Reaching the best idea requires conflict. People need to disagree and debate their points in an open environment. Arguing is a good thing as long as the company trains people to do it healthily. It is the key to success.

Studies also show that most mergers and acquisitions fail because of organizational silence that stems from the fear of conflict — From an HBR article.

3.0 DIVERSE TEAM

A football coach, a bank clerk, a manager in messenger service, a stockbroker, a mechanic, a house painter, a salesman, an architect, a retiree, a garage owner, a watchmaker, and an advertising man — These were the jury members. They were from diverse fields with different experience/knowledge levels.

We all know decision-making is a critical component of every manager’s progress in his/her work. His/her choices have a direct effect on an organization’s success.

However, studies show that more than 60 percent of those individual decisions had resulted in bad outcomes for the business.

Bill Campbell writes, “A place where the top manager makes all decisions leads to mess because people will spend their time trying to convince the manager that their idea is the best. It’s not about that the best idea carrying the day, it’s about who does the best job for lobbying the top dog.”

The solution — Lauren Landry in her HBS online article, writes, “One way to increase a manager’s likelihood of successful decisions is to include his/her team in the process.”

Two heads are always better than one, and many heads are even better, provided they are happy to share their expertise and feedback.

Team Composition — Studies show that diversity leads to better decision-making. Lauren Landry adds, “By bringing people into the conversation with different disciplinary and cultural backgrounds, you can enhance creativity and gain a fresh perspective on the task or problem at hand.”

Have a diversified team with deep knowledge and sufficient experience to get different perspectives/opinions/ideas. Strive for cognitive diversity in the team. It would lead to better decisions most of the time.

A decision is as good as its team members.

4.0 RESPECT

When Juror 8 voted non-guilty, some of the jurors showed annoyance. Even during the discussion, he faced their sarcastic comments. One of the jurors called him an ignorant man. Yet, he showed respect and listened to their views.

“Respecting Everyone” is a critical element in an organization’s growth. The leader has to create an environment where people will respect each other, irrespective of job titles, and hierarchies. Just like Juror 8, every person should firmly believe that every other individual in the organization is inherently valuable and want to do a great job. So, everyone deserves respect.

A survey conducted by Georgetown University revealed that most workers ranked respect as the most influential leadership behavior in building trust. The employees added that they enjoyed the work when they feel respected in the workplace.

Juror 8 saw other jurors as his peers. He didn’t consider himself superior or smarter than anyone and was humble. A leader has to treat everyone as a peer.

“Each person is important & each job is important” -Dave Packard.

5.0 HAVE AN OPEN MIND

When juror 8 voted not-guilty for the first time, other jurors asked him the reason. He told them that he just wanted to discuss.

To this, the 7th juror responds, “Well, What’s there to talk about? Eleven men agree here. Nobody had to think twice about it, except you.”

Then, the 10th Juror asks juror 8, “I want to ask you something. Do you believe his story?.”

8th juror replies, “I don’t know whether I believe it or not.”

Juror 8 was open-minded. Like few other jurors, he didn’t enter the meeting with a predetermined solution.

Then, the 7th juror interferes, “I think the boy’s guilty. You couldn’t change my mind if you talked for hundred years.”

Juror 8 replies, “I am not trying to change your mind.” He just wanted to talk and reach for the right solution.

We need to enter office meetings with an open mind and not with a prejudged solution. With a preconceived idea, we will unconsciously try to convince people to believe in it. Like juror 8, we should strive to find the best solution. And not to change the minds of other people.

  • Open-mindedness helps a person to be receptive to a wide variety of ideas, arguments, and information. He/she will become a good listener. By listening, a person will begin to consider other’s perspectives and ideas.
  • Juror 8 was very receptive, tolerant, and fair-minded. So, open-mindedness improves a person’s levels of tolerance, patience, and humility.
  • In the movie, we could see how a couple of jurors(juror 3 and juror 10) entered with a preconceived notion and struggled to see all the problematic factors. They become self-obsessed so much that they outrightly denied or rejected the possibility of others being right. If we are not open-minded, we will miss all those critical blind spots in our ideas/solutions.
  • The movie also shows that many a time, we decide on someone or something without even knowing the complete facts.
  • Like juror 8, when one thinks and speaks without any bias in his/her mind, he/she can think critically.

A leader also has to create an environment where every member will be happy to listen to other’s ideas/suggestions/solutions.

6.0 GIVE THE QUIET ONE’s A VOICE

As juror 8 wanted to talk, the 12th juror says, “It’s just a quick thought. Can we each take up a minute or two and talk about the case?.”

Hearing this, the foreman agrees, “I think it’s a good one. Supposing we go once around the table?.”

An opportunity for everyone to talk.

Jonathan Ive, Apple’s former chief design officer, once said that a manager/leader’s most important role is to “give the quiet ones a voice.”

In meetings, A leader’s job is to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard, regardless of their functional role. Be especially aware of quiet people. Some might feel intimidated or fear retribution. Loud arguments, racy speeches cause discomfort and stop some introverts from opening up. Yet, those people will have important points/ideas/knowledge that can play a pivotal role in making decisions. In the movie, juror 5 was hesitant to open up. Eventually, he began to open up and contributed critical inputs for arriving at the right solution.

When you get people to speak in meetings, you benefit from the group’s collective wisdom, so people can build on one another’s comments and ideas — Kim Scott.

7.0 KNOW WHEN TO RING THE BELL

In one of the scenes, juror 8 says, “We can’t decide a person’s life in five minutes. Let’s take an hour to discuss.” He fixed a deadline.

As the discussion deepened, juror 8 proposed another and the final deadline for ending the debate. It eased the anxiety of other jurors.

The leader has to establish a deadline. Some people can debate for hours. However, studies show that more extended debates often end in mediocre compromise and incur a substantial opportunity cost. It reiterates the notion that stretched analysis beyond a point won’t lead to a better decision. So, decide on a rough deadline, run the meeting, observe whether the topic needs more time — if needed, then add a final deadline, and then enforce it.

8.0 EMPATHY

Below are some of juror 8’s dialogues —

“Look, the boy’s been kicked around all his life. You know… living in a slum, his mother dead since he was nine. He spent a year and a half in an orphanage while his father served a jail term for a forgery. That’s not a very good head start. He’d a pretty terrible sixteen years. I think maybe we owe him a few words.”

“Ever since he was five years old his father beat him up regularly. He used his fists. It’s the reason for him to be an angry kid.”

“The boy has been hit so many times in his life that violence has practically a normal state of affairs for him. I can’t see two slaps in the face provoking him into committing murder.”

In another scene, juror 8 mentions that he felt that the defense counsel wasn’t doing its job. He adds, “When the trial was on, I kept putting myself in the boy’s place. I would have asked for another lawyer, I think.”

Juror 8 could see the problems because he continuously viewed things from the boy’s perspective. That’s the critical factor needed in the workplace.

Annie McKee writes in her HBR article, “As a leader, if you really want to improve how people work together at meetings, you’ll need to rely on — and maybe develop — a couple of key emotional intelligence competencies: empathy and emotional self-management.

She adds that carefully reading people(empathy) will also help you understand the major and often hidden conflicts in the group. Addressing those conflicts will help in collaboration among members.

  • In the movie, juror 3’s previous personal experiences were the reasons behind his behavior and opinions. It was the same case with juror 10. To convince them and encourage collaboration, we need to address those hidden biases/conflicts/reasons. When somebody shouts or throws a negative comment in a meeting, the real cause might not be the topic of discussion. It could be a problem he/she had faced in his/her home that morning. Sometimes, private, compassionate listening from the leader will solve it.

Before judging people, find out ‘why’ behind that behavior.

  • People think clearly when they have happy/positive feelings. Empathy helps a leader to retain people in that state.
  • Being empathetic will also help a person to see a problem from the other person’s perspective. It will open up and reveal blind spots in your solution/idea.

9.0 CLARIFY

Below are some of the juror 8’s dialogues from the movie —

a) When juror 2’s turn came during the discussion, he said, “I just.. think he’s guilty. I thought it is obvious from the word ‘go’. I mean nobody proved otherwise.”

Hearing this, juror 8 states the fact, “Nobody has to prove otherwise. The burden of proof is on the prosecution. The defendant doesn’t have to open his mouth. That’s in the constitution. You’ve heard of it.”

To this, juror 2 agrees.

b) In one of the scenes, juror 4 says, “Now suppose we take these facts one at a time. One — The boy admitted going out of his house at eight o'clock on the night of the murder after being punched several times by his father.”

Juror 8 interferes, “He didn’t say “punched”. He said “hit”. There’s a difference between slap and a punch.”

c) In another scene, the 4th juror says, “The knife the boy had wasn’t an ordinary knife. It had an unusual carved handle. The storekeeper who sold it to him said that it was only one of its kind. The boy said that the knife fell somewhere through a hole in his pocket. Do you believe that story?.”

Juror 8 replies, “No. I’m saying that it’s possible that the boy lost his knife and that someone else stabbed his father with a similar knife.”

4th juror, “Take a look at that knife. I haven’t seen anything like that. Aren’t you asking us to accept a pretty incredible coincidence?.”

8th juror, “I am not saying anyone to accept it. I’m saying that it’s possible.”

3rd juror(shouting), “And I am saying it’s not possible.”

Juror 8 calmly reaches into his pocket and pulls out a similar-looking knife. Other jurors are shocked. He adds, “Yesterday night I walked through the boy’s neighborhood and bought that knife from a little pawnshop three blocks from his house.”

One of the leader’s critical role is to furnish additional clarity to the discussion topic. He/she should have thorough information about the problem/topic. He/she should watch for any deviations that would take the members away from the core problem. By frequently clarifying things, leaders ensure the preservation of an employee’s energy and guiding them to focus only on critical elements.

The dynamic business environment necessitates that a leader should keep gaining knowledge. Moreover, he/she should also know how to apply them for the benefit of people. The more knowledge you acquire, the more curious you become. So, leaders have to make every possible effort to improve their expertise and skills. They have to keep abreast of the latest developments in their industry.

Leaders who lack the knowledge to perform will fail to grab the opportunities to lead.

10. PAUSE FOR EMOTION/EXHAUSTION

When jury members voted for the second time, one more person voted for not-guilty, supporting juror 8. It agitated some of the jurors. Tension began to build up in the air.

Sensing it, the foreman says, “I think we ought to take a break. Let’s wait for five minutes.” He moved to the part of the table where knives are kept. He took one of them and handed it to the guard stationed outside the room.

Kim Scott writes, “There are times when people are too tired, burnt out, or emotionally charged up to engage in productive debate. It is crucial to be aware of these moments because they rarely lead to good outcomes. A leader’s job is to intervene and call a time-out.”

It is also necessary that the leader moves away from his seat and engage in informal conversations or some other activity to visually symbolize the break.

Make sure people are in a better frame of mind.

The Environment — In the movie, the members met on a hotter day. Moreover, the fan was also not working. We could see people were struggling to manage the heat. They were losing energy. Unfortunately, cognitive tasks also need a lot of energy. Evolutionary demands have forced human brains to look for ways to conserve energy. Therefore, in those energy-sapping environmental conditions, it’s natural that human brains will look for ways to stop critical thinking. It was one of the reasons why people wanted to end the debate as early as possible. Once the rain started pouring, the fan became operational, the jurors began to fare better and could involve themselves in the discussion.

So, for healthy debate, have proper environmental conditions.

11.0 IDEA MERITOCRACY

The lone dissenting Juror 8 wanted to talk/debate because he desired the truth to come out at the end. In other words, strive for the right solution in meetings at the workplace. And, the quantity & quality of data/facts in debates reveal the right/best solution. To improve the volume and quality of debate facts, the leader has to create an environment that would stimulate all the members to think to their best means.

How to reach for the best solution/idea?

  • Raise open-ended questions — Some of the jurors asked several open-ended questions that lighted the flame of curiosity in everyone’s mind.
  • As jury members have nothing to gain or lose, most of them put their honest thoughts on the table for everyone to see. A leader has to create an environment that encourages members to freely air their honest opinions, ideas, and thoughts.
  • In the movie, the jury members had disagreements. But they kept discussing back and forth, leading to the evolution and sharpening of ideas. Similarly, a leader has to create an environment where members can discuss their thoughtful disagreements and come up with better decisions than they could come up with individually.

Strive for the best idea/solution/truth rather than who makes the decision — Bill Campbell.

12.0 DO NOT MAKE IT PERSONAL

When juror 8 voted “not guilty” for the first time, the 10th juror in a sarcastic tone, “Boy-oh-boy, there’s always one.” It was an attack on the person rather than on the idea.

After some time, Juror 9 says, “It suddenly occurs to me that you’re an ignorant man. Do you think you have a monopoly on the truth?” Another personal attack on juror 8.

At one time, Juror 7 to another juror, pointing to juror 8, “How do you like him? It’s like talking to a dead phone.”

Juror three, seven, and ten continued to place several personal attacks on juror 8. Some of them are mentioned below.

“You’re crazy.” — “It’s an idiotic argument” — “You keep coming up with these bright sayings. Why don’t you send one to a newspaper? They pay three dollars.” “How come you are the only one in the room who wants to see exhibits all the time?.”

Juror 3 and juror 10 also abused other jurors when they changed their vote to “not guilty”. Juror 3 to one of the other jurors, “You haven’t got a leg to stand on. You’re just letting yourself be bulldozed by a bunch of so-called intellectuals.”

Jurors 3, 7, and 10 often asked questions like “How could you believe that?” “Can’t you see?” “What’s he talking about?”

At times, juror 10 was very abusive. In the movie, we could see that other jurors have stopped listening to him. In one of the scenes, while juror ten was talking, the foreman ignores him and calls for voting.

For a robust debate, we need to depersonalize our arguments.

To avoid a personal attack —

  • Everybody has to believe that everyone intends to do good for the company, employees, and the customers.
  • People should firmly believe that every individual in the organization is inherently valuable.
  • People have to focus only on the problem/idea and not on the abilities or personalities. Instead of saying that he/she is wrong, talk about the wrong things in the solution.
  • Everyone has to believe that there are some elements of truth in everyone’s position/opinions. Kim Scott says that it’s rare for a good person to be completely 100 percent wrong.
  • Ray Dalio says, “On hearing any information or idea, the first thought an employee should get is to ponder about the accuracy of the information.”

As a leader, don’t let people ridicule or laugh at or punish or ignore somebody for their actions and ideas in the workplace meetings/environment.

Be intellectually humble — From the beginning, a few of the jurors respected juror 8’s viewpoint and changed their minds when they doubted the evidence. Even juror eight respected other juror’s perspectives and listened to them. For a healthy debate, the participants should be ready to change their minds when necessary. They shouldn’t get attached to the idea/solution and think of them as their own. Admit candidly when you are wrong and appreciate the opposing views. Be intellectually humble.

13.0 SEEK ANSWERS, NOT OPINIONS

Questioning is a uniquely powerful tool to improve productivity in meetings. It spurs learning and the exchange of ideas. It builds rapport and trust among team members.

For a healthy debate, the members shouldn’t be asking other’s opinions or closed-end/leading questions. They should seek answers by asking open-ended, non-leading questions.

Some of the leading, closed-end questions from the movie— What do you want? Do you believe this story? Wouldn’t you call those beatings a motive for the boy to kill his father? Isn’t that enough for you? I don’t see how you can argue with that? Do you think so?

What kind of questions should a person ask?

To have a real discussion, spend time thinking about the type of questions to ask. Why and What are better questions to initiate a discussion.

Some of the open-ended questions from the movie that initiated a deeper discussion —

a) When Juror 4 spoke about the woman who saw the killing through the windows of the moving elevated train, juror 3 asked juror 8, “What have you got to say about it?”

b) 7th juror to juror 8, “Look, what about the old man(witness)?.”

c) In another scene, juror 6 asks juror 9, “Why do you think the old man(one of the witnesses) might lie?”

d) 11th juror to other jurors, “There is a question I’d like to ask. If the boy had really killed his father, why would he come back three hours later?.”

e) 2nd juror to others, “There’s something I’d like to say. I mean, it’s been bothering me a little. There was this whole business about the stab wound and how it was made, the downward angle of it, you know?.”

f) “What has he got to gain?”

Asking open-ended questions indicate that the person wants a real debate. It encourages others to share their views.

14.0 NO GAIN, NO LOSS

In the movie, as discussions turned into arguments, some of the jurors became aggressive. They started verbally fighting between them.

Juror 11 interferes and says, “Look. Fighting. This is not why we are here. We have a responsibility. We have come down to this place to decide the guilt or innocence of a man we have never heard before. We have nothing to gain or lose by the verdict. This is one of the reasons why we are strong.

Nothing to gain or lose by the verdict. That’s why we are strong.

At Pixar, in meetings, Ed Catmull wanted every participant to share his/her honest feedback about the idea/story. To encourage that, he introduced a system where participants earned no credits or rewards for their feedback on the project. They gained no favors from their supervisors. They aren’t going to be fired or demoted inside the organization. Like jurors in the movie, everyone is an equal participant. There’s no hierarchy or special weightage given to one person’s viewpoint over another’s. It played a critical role in Pixar’s success.

15.0 DEMONSTRATE

The conventional wisdom in psychology states that our brain isn’t of one mind. It has two independent systems —

  • Emotional mind — that is instinctive and feels pain & pleasure
  • The Rational Mind — whose function is to analyze and deliberate on things.

The Decision-Making Mind — The highlight of having two independent systems is that most of the decisions are taken by our emotional mind and not the rational mind.

Whenever we present problems in numbers or facts, we are talking to the listener’s rational mind that plays the least role in decision making. For convincing people, our content should be talking to the listener’s emotional brain.

How to target the emotional mind? — Present the evidence in such a way that would make the person feel something — It should hit at the emotional level. It could be a visual display — or, It could be a story — or any other sensory input. All sensory organs have direct shortcuts to our emotional mind. Let’s exploit them. Let people see, hear, taste, touch, or smell, and then experience.

Research in neuroscience and cognitive science shows that people remember and respond most effectively to what they sense and experience.

Visual Demonstration — One way to target a listener’s emotional mind is to visually demonstrate the idea — through quick prototypes or acting out scenarios.

In the movie, to convince people, juror 8 acts out specific scenarios.

a) In one of the scenes, juror 8 wanted to show whether the old man(one of the witnesses) who drags one leg while walking could get from his bed to the door in fifteen seconds. He then paces twelve feet to symbolize the position of the bedroom door. He places a chair at that spot. Then, he walks another 43 steps and places a chair at that position, symbolizing the house entrance. After that, the 8th juror asks another juror to set the timer.

Now, the 8th juror starts acting out the scenario — He lies down on two chairs(like lying on the bed), rises to the sitting position after hearing the sound of the falling body, swings his legs to the floor, and stands up. The 8th juror walks, dragging one leg, towards the chair that indicates the bedroom door. He reaches it and pretends to open the door. Then, he walks another 43 feet to the simulated end of the hallway. Juror 8 opens the imaginary lock and the door. It took 42 seconds, not 15 seconds.

Other jury members realized that it would be impossible for the old man to reach the doorway in 15 seconds.

b) In another scene, juror 2 begins to discuss the stab wound and its downward angle —

Juror 2, “The boy is five feet, seven inches tall. His father was six-two. That’s a difference of seven inches. It’s a very awkward thing to stab down into the chest of someone who’s more than half a foot taller than you are.”

In response to this, juror 3 demonstrates how it’s done —

Then, Juror 5, who grew up in the slum area and had a sound knowledge of how people would use the knife, interferes in the discussion. He demonstrates how the people living in those areas would use switchblade knives.

Eric Schmidt writes, “At Google, we don’t seek to convince people by saying, “I think.” We convince them by saying “Let me show you.”

Demonstrate your ideas by acting out scenarios or making crude, rough prototypes.

16.0 AGREE ONLY IF YOU’RE CONVINCED

In one of the scenes, in the middle of the discussion, juror 7 says, “I’m a little sick of the whole thing already. All these yakking’s gettin’ us nowhere so I’m going to break it up here. I’m changing my vote to ‘not guilty’.”

To this, the 11th juror angrily responds, “What kind of man are you? You voted guilty with everyone else because there are some baseball tickets burning a hole in your pocket. Now you have changed your vote because you say you’re sick of all the talking here.”

He continues, “You’ve no right to play like that in a man’s life. If you want to vote “not guilty” then do it because you’re convinced the man is not guilty. Not because you’ve had enough.

A leader has to make sure that an individual’s ego and self-interest shouldn’t get in the way of obtaining the best solution from the meetings. In the movie, we could see how self-interest prompted juror 7 to support a solution. As juror 11 points out — participants should support an idea only if he/she’s convinced by the facts. It’s the leader’s responsibility. As a leader, remind yourself and others that the objective is to get to the best answer and not a consensual decision.

Don’t grab a decision just because the debate has gotten painful — It’s tempting to end debates and make a decision too soon when a debate becomes too painful. But a boss’s job is to keep the debate going rather than to resolve it with a decision — Kim Scott.

References:: HBR article — How to Debate Ideas Productively at Work by Shane Snow, HBR article — How to Have a Good Debate in a Meeting by Morten T. Hansen, HBR article — Empathy is the key to great meeting by Annie McKee, Radical Candor by Kim Scott, Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Playbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell by Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg, and Alan Eagle, Principles by Ray Dalio, HBR’s 10 Must Reads On Leadership, Article by Lauren Landry in Harvard Business School Online, Creativity, Inc. by Amy Wallace and Edwin Catmull, Article on Questioning Culture by Ted Thomas and James Thomas, Switch by Chip and Dan Heath.

Secular Humanist, Business Growth Consultant, Design Thinker, India. Reach me at mmshah8@gmail.com. or https://www.shahmohammed.com