In a safe environment, there is room for contrary opinions, and we hear those opinions. In a healthy and thriving organization, opposite views are not only heard, but they are also encouraged. Contrarians are not naysayers or doom-and-gloom people. They look at things differently!
The Red Card
Some organizations insist that there always be a contrary proposal—a devil’s advocate. They may go so far as having people attending a decision or brainstorming meeting draw cards on the way into the meeting. One person will receive a
designated devil’s advocate (red) card. It becomes that person’s job to take a contrary view to the forming consensus opinion and fight for it with passion and conviction.
This process is not a joke or a hollow exercise. Instead, it is serious opposition to allowing an easy consensus to form. It fights against groupthink. Hopefully, done with respect and professionalism, the debate sharpens the picture for the final chosen proposal. The competition of ideas improves the outcome. Of course, when the team makes the decision, then everyone must work for complete success.
Once we decide on a way forward, it is somewhat analogous to crossing the event horizon of a black hole. By that, I mean, it is challenging, seemingly impossible at times, to turn back and take a new course of action. There are too many sunk costs. Too much personal investment in the chosen decision to admit that it isn’t working. Yet there must be a balance between commitment to moving forward and changing course when necessary.
To achieve that balance, I believe the team must realize that they may reach the goal in any number of ways. It is easier to change course when we recognize that many ideas were presented before making the final decision. When no contrary views are made known at the beginning, people often assume there is but one way forward.
In Taoist metaphysics, distinctions between good and evil, along with other dichotomous moral judgments, are perceptual, not real. So, the duality of yin and yang is a unified whole. The same concept holds for business decisions. Therefore, as leaders, we must work to make sure that we consider all aspects of our interdependent world. More often than not, the way forward is not clear. We choose between several excellent options or, sometimes, we choose between the lesser evils. Encouraging our teams to hold opposite possibilities—Yin-Yang—in mind at once will make it much easier to identify and accept when the chosen path must be changed.
The Gift of Contrary Opinions
Great leadership teams value the gift of contrarians. It is critical that everyone, including those who are introverted or reticent to share, is given a chance to be heard. Ideas may be challenged, but the good intentions of the person espousing an approach should not be questioned.
It is the leader’s responsibility to manage the organization’s culture such that contrary opinions are acceptable and encouraged. How safe is your organization’s culture? Are there contrarians on your team? Do your product, marketing, and strategy meetings allow for differing opinions? Have you actively encouraged controversial ideas?