Naysayers Can Be Our Best Allies

The CEO of a large Oil and Gas Company addresses his senior leadership team to find that all financial metrics are pointed in the wrong direction.  Their “big idea” was not working out…

Everyone agreed that their idea to convert raw peanuts into jet fuel was bold and creative.  R&D produced weekly updates that indicated they were close to a breakthrough.  And yet, the R&D Director secretly voiced his pessimism regarding a positive outcome.

Informal hallway meetings, after the presentations by the CEO, were frequent. And, most lacked optimism regarding the project. Finally, in an executive session, the Director of Sales spoke up. She asked the CEO why the company would continue to spend money on a project that showed little to no potential and, in fact, might completely ruin the company.  The CEO explained that he was under the impression that everyone “wanted” this to happen.  He had heard no negative feedback.

The floodgates opened, and an honest discussion followed.  The project was scrapped; the company got back on track.  

In 1974, Jerry Harvey, a well-known management expert, wrote an article entitled, “The Abilene Paradox:  The Management of Agreement.”  In this anecdotal story, Harvey shows how a group of people can collectively decide a course of action that is counter to the preferences of many (or all) in the group.  This is different from groupthink; it is simply the inability to manage agreement.

Leaders, like our CEO from the Oil and Gas Company, frequently fail to get any real feedback – positive or negative.  Why does this paradox exist?

My experience, dealing with hundreds of CEOs and senior leadership teams, shows that these folks are not well-equipped to give or get constructive feedback. I call the process of giving honest feedback “carefrontation.”

Many times, the fear of offending or losing team members keeps teams from behaving maturely.  Other times, it is the company culture that keeps real conversations at bay.  In group settings, nobody likes to be labeled a pessimist. More often than not, it is our biases showing through.  Our bias can be explained like this: We have beliefs that are established though our experiences as well as key individuals that impact us. Our beliefs drive attitudes, which, in turn, promote certain behaviors.  Those behaviors produce results. Bias can look like status quo and confirmation bias where we believe that our world will always be as it is. It can also be a sunflower bias where when the boss speaks up first – and the likelihood is low that anyone else will speak up. This is what happened in our story of the Oil and Gas Company.  The question remains: how do we overcome the paradox?

One option would be to hire an Executive Coach.  Coaches can hold decisions up to a mirror and help question your answers.  Another option may be to join a peer or mastermind group.  Verne Harnish, founder of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) and author of Scaling Up, says, “there is no problem you can’t solve if you have a group of peers watching your back.”

The reality is that leaders need a way to gain perspective.  Edward de Bono’s book, Six Thinking Hats, encourages us to view a decision or an opportunity from another perspective. We must wear the hat of someone that thinks and views issues differently than we do.  It gives us greater perspective; a new way of viewing a situation.

Finally, it allows leaders to appoint a devil’s advocate. This could be someone who has no personal stake in the decision, but holds a position that allows he or she to be as independent as possible.  Your own personal ‘naysayer’ will add depth; this person can change the way you and your team think and act.  You will manage agreement more effectively and produce better decisions and results.