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The Dangers of Affirming our Well Formed Opinions

Let’s face it, we are ALL the smartest and most correct people in the room.We have become experts on a particular topic, advised senior leaders, argued circles around our peers and taken up residence as the Grand Poobah. We are so persuaded that our position is brilliant that no amount of additional input will move us. Because we are the best and smartest. Of course others tend to see us as utter assholes…especially after we proclaim “I told you so”.

Moving past all the insecurities and ego problems this self righteous and closed stance implies, I’m especially interested in why we all have a tendency to fall into this defense (present company included). Interested and concerned because if you have six people on your team and everyone believes they have the right answer there is trouble ahead. The conversation will become combative, loud and unproductive and poor decisions will be made.

First, some research. Psychology and social psychology are filled with theories and experiments that all point to the same conclusion: Once a person has a strongly held belief no amount of data to the contrary, new information or persuasive arguments will change his/her mind. That powerful idea is woven into the fabric of many other beliefs or one’s self definition and it is just too threatening to untangle or change it. (Look up cognitive dissonance, belief perseverance or backfire effect.) The only proven method for changing someone’s mind requires some positive self affirmations before a private conversation. Trying to change people’s minds in a public forum won’t work. Way too threatening.

So think of your team of six. Imagine that four of you fervently believe you have The Right Answer. The other two feel less convinced of their own positions on this issue. While the gang of four duke it out, the other two find this a waste of time. As the leader you try to facilitate a more open dialogue to find a middle ground. As the decibels increase you jump in to shut it all down by declaring The Decision. Discussion over. If hope springs eternal in your heart, you will leave the meeting believing that everyone will do as you instructed. But I know you are not that naive.

Let’s focus on self awareness. Given that most of us will play the part of the asshole from time to time, it is important to acknowledge a few truths.

  • We invest heavily in our public persona. By the time we are successful professionals we have a well crafted narrative. We let others know what prestigious schools we attended, what stellar companies we used to work for, what esteemed roles we held and our string of success stories. To back up that story we display some bravado because modesty won’t get you ahead. Being able to argue a strong position and persuade others is all a part of the profile. And it must be reinforced constantly.
  • Ideas that are different than our own are experienced as a challenge. I express Point A. You express Point B. I immediately react to convince you and others that Point B can’t possibly be right because it contradicts my better Point A. I don’t even take a breath long enough to really hear what you have said, let alone entertain it. To hold my own strong opinion at the same time that you express the exact opposite is tremendously uncomfortable. I’m all instinct and very little thought.
  • It takes a lot of work to change our minds. To open up to other points of view requires some mental and emotional gymnastics. I have to suspend my own thinking, listen fully to what you are saying, sift through what resonates and what doesn’t, integrate that new thought into my long term perspective and then figure out how to use this new hybrid idea. Phew! It’s much easier to just be mentally lazy.
  • We might look weak or wishy washy if we open up to new ideas. Somewhere along the way the notion that changing one’s mind was not a sign of strong leadership. Decisive, carefully thought through, determined, persuasive…these are admirable traits. Open mindedness, flexibility and agility are considered strengths these days but there is not much resonance yet that those traits amount to potent leadership. It is still aspirational for leaders yet a requirement for staff. If leaders demonstrate these traits too frequently they are deemed confusing. The staff clambers for declarative statements and unwavering decisions from their leaders.

There are no simple solutions to this very human drama that unfolds in our teams everyday. Relaxing your strongly held positions is hard work. Helping your team to hear each other ain’t easy. Serving up multiple points of view without seeing that as a battle cry goes against habit. But doing all three of these things will create remarkably different conversations, decisions and outcomes.

Imagine yourself preparing for a critical discussion with your team. Write one sentence that states your position and then leave that note in your desk. As you do this tell yourself to let go of that opinion so you can remain open to what happens in the room. You start the meeting by asking each person to do the same thing: write down their opinion and put it aside. Use some other techniques to draw out each member’s thoughts. For example, rather than saying “I’d like to hear from everyone”, ask each person to move to a private section of the room and write three bullet points about their thoughts on the subject on a flip chart. Then ask the team to wander around the room to read the charts. Have them use markers to put stars by the lines that resonate. There will be a visual display of points of agreement to begin the discussion. This process can bypass the strident “listen to me!!” that is often the start of debates that must result in a decision. Beginning with convergence deflates some of the brashness. The conversation can proceed with greater probability of incorporating multiple additional points of view that contribute to the core consensus.

Bottom line: digging your heels in to maintain your strong opinions is self serving and leads to crappy team dynamics and decisions. Developing a practice of productively sharing ideas rather than egos is challenging but doable. As a wise person once told me: Get over yourself. Better things can happen when you do.

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