In a safe environment, there is room for contrary opinions. Opposing views are truly heard. In a healthy and thriving organization, contrary views are not only heard, but they are also encouraged. Contrarians are not naysayers or doom-and-gloom people. They simply 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 in. 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. It is meant to be a serious opposition to allowing an easy consensus to form. It fights against group think. Hopefully, done with respect and professionalism, the opposition sharpens the picture for the final chosen proposal. The competition of ideas improves the outcome. Of course, when the decision is made, then everyone must work for complete success.
Once a decision on a way forward is chosen, it is somewhat analogous to crossing the event horizon of a black hole. By that I mean, it is very difficult, 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 it is obviously critical that there be a balance between commitment to moving forward and changing course when necessary.
To achieve that balance, I believe it is necessary for the team to realize that the goal might be achieved in any number of ways. Realizing that there were many other ideas presented prior to the final decision makes it easier to regroup and change course. When no contrary ideas are made known at the beginning, people often assume there is but one way forward.
In Taoist metaphysics, distinctions between good and bad, along with other dichotomous moral judgments, are perceptual, not real; so, the duality of yin and yang is an indivisible whole. The same holds true for business decisions. Thus deliberately ensuring that we, as leaders, have explored all the light vs dark, good vs bad and the interrelated, interdependent possible outcomes is critical. 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 on the team. It is critical that everyone, including those who are introverted or reticent to share, be given a chance to be heard. Ideas may be challenged but the good intentions of the person espousing an idea should not be challenged.
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?