If you lead a large organization or team and everyone agrees with you, it doesn’t mean you’re the smartest person in the room. It means you probably shouldn’t be leading, because your closed mind is stifling your teams.
There are no universal truths in human behavior, but if there’s one, it’s that you can’t get a room full of humans to agree on anything (The Enigma of Reason by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber is an interesting look into why that is!). And if we can’t even agree on hard evidence of what has already happened, it obviously doesn’t make sense that an entire group would be so aligned in a debate about the best way forward into an uncertain future. This is a clear signal that the leader has failed to create a safe space for feedback, and is likely sharing opinions too early that dominate the more-informed views of people closest to an issue.
Sometimes a leader will need to make a decision, at which point everyone needs to fall in line and row forward (Jeff Bezos’ model on this is to disagree and commit). But this decision point needs to happen after team members have been given the opportunity (and even encouraged) to disagree, which I’ve rarely seen in practice at most organizations I’ve worked with. If a leader has already built a true feedback culture or idea meritocracy, which Ray Dalio coined for what he’s built into Bridgewater Associates, then he or she can engage willingly in a debate. But that is the extreme minority. In 99% of organizations, once the highest-ranking person in the room shares an opinion, they’ve already commandeered the ship and steered it straight for Groupthink Bay.
There are a few simple things a leader can build into a culture to counter this:
- Take a lesson from Charlie Munger
“I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.” This is more of a reminder to keep quiet, because if a leader actually can give a more nuanced argument than core team members about an issue in a company, the organization is probably in terrible shape.
- Assign a Devil’s Advocate:
Designate a small group tasked with arguing views contrasting with the consensus. This takes time to build up in practice, but can actually be fun. By explicitly tasking the group to challenge, you remove fear of challenging authority.
- What Three Worries
I stole this naming convention from What3Words (my favorite map app!), but it’s a concept I’ve been playing around with recently. The idea is that for every strategy proposal, the person or team responsible has to use their imagination to outline, in some level of specificity, three potentially negative unintended consequences or second-order effects that could result. The objective is not to stifle progress, but to combat overconfidence by reinforcing the notion that decisions are always uncertain. This would be an expected practice for all levels of the organization, including the top. You can think of this as a close cousin of the pre-mortem.
Despite what is too often modeled, the leader of a high-performing team is not supposed to be the star player. Rather, he should be conducting the sideline interview (I’ve written in another post about how the comparison of leader to coach is lazy). The less a leader’s opinion is known on a particular issue, the more likely the group will arrive at the most informed view and associated course of action.