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The Benefit of Dissenting Opinion

I love vigorous debate, generally have an open mind, and actually enjoy having my thoughts and opinions challenged. If everyone always agreed with me conversation wouldn’t be very stimulating, and acquiring new knowledge and insight would certainly be more difficult. That said, I only really have the patience for intellectually honest discourse. I don’t care in the slightest about winning arguments, whether someone is right or wrong, or whether logic is sound or flawed, but I do care about motivation and intent. In the text that follows I’m going to ask you to do some soul searching – up for the challenge?

What follows might get a bit esoteric, but if you can get past the semantics of my philosophizing I believe you’ll find great value as I connect the dots on today’s topic. A few initial questions to ponder as we get started – How do you react when someone disagrees with you? Do you tuck tail and run desiring to avoid conflict at all costs? Do you dig-in your heels and prepare to defend your position to the death, all the while not really caring about how many casualties are incurred in the process? Or do you attempt to gain knowledge, understanding and perspective? Most importantly, do you genuinely engage in pursuit of the truth, or do you just wax eloquent in an attempt to justify your opinion or position?

It seems today’s world is awash with people who have lost the ability to disagree with someone, yet still respect them. If someone challenges your thinking and you immediately view them as an adversary, there might be a problem with your perspective. Are your leadership skills developed enough to have the tough conversations, or just the conversations you want to have?

Here’s my premise – few things benefit leaders in the ways that dissenting opinions do. The best leaders constantly seek out and engage those who challenge their thinking. They are curious, inquisitive, and have an insatiable appetite for learning. Most importantly, they truly care about what others think and why they hold the convictions they do. Whether you see opposing views and positions as conflict or opportunity says a lot about you as a person, and especially gives insightful commentary on who you are as a leader. Being able to discern and debate subjective positions with objectivity is an art form that must be present for effective leadership. If you cannot lead someone with whom you disagree then you are not a leader – you’re a dictator. If you cannot surround yourself with those who challenge your thinking then you are not a leader – you’re an egomaniac.

Understanding and respecting other’s perceptions is such a critical part of being an effective leader that absent this ability I truly believe you cannot be effective in a leadership role. Great leaders take the time to understand the various constituencies and spheres of influence they come in contact with. “My way or the highway” thinking, and/or positional dictatorships rarely create the culture and performance demonstrated by winning organizations.

While I long ago reached the conclusion that perception does in fact matter, it may not be for the reasons that you might think.  I have found that the majority of people tend to be myopic with regard to perception…they understand their own  perceptions, but are quite often either ignorant or uncompassionate with regard to the perceptions of others. You see, the most important item to understand is that success as a leader has very little to do with your perception, but rather it has everything to do with the perception of others.

I’m not suggesting that you ignore your perception, subordinate your perception, or change your perception, but I am strongly suggesting that you take the time to both be aware of, and understand the perceptions of others. What I’ve just espoused has nothing to with compromising your values or being disingenuous. Rather my reasoning simply hypothisizes that if you’re not in touch with the perceptions of meaningful constituencies, your success will be impeded by your tunnel vision.

When it comes to authentic, transparent discourse, motivations matter. Those who place the care and regard of others above advancing their personal, positional, professional or political agendas will garner trust, respect and influence. You see it is precisely by not attempting to steamroll, manipulate or outsmart others, that you’ll be able to effectively convey your message even to an audience that might not otherwise be willing or receptive. Moreover, by having open and honest interactions you might actually learn something…

I can guarantee you that you’re not always right, that your thinking can be nuanced, that your knowledge can be deepened, that you can reframe and evolve your positions, and that your vision can be expanded, However these things don’t generally happen if you give monologues rather than participate in dialogues. If you don’t engage those who hold dissenting opinions and viewpoints in candid and open discussions you will struggle in developing to your true intellectual potential. Whether you agree or disagree is not the point…The point is that understanding the perceptions of others affords you a source of intelligence, a learning opportunity, and the ability to keep lines of communication open.

So, what do you think? Whether you agree or disagree I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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    […] perception matters! […]

    Gordon R. Clogston

    October 21, 2010 at 10:37 am

    Mike,

    As always, you have communicated some very tough messages in a very clear voice…

    When I read leadership-oriented blog posts I like to look for the key messages. In this post, I identified 7 key messages, all of which point to your conclusion.

    1.“If you cannot lead someone with whom you disagree then you are not a leader – you’re a dictator.”

    We are not robots. We bring to every situation a unique set of filters that have been created over a lifetime of experience and therefore it would be impossible for us to agree on every important topic. The inability to lead those with whom you disagree is a serious weakness IMHO.

    2.“If you cannot surround yourself with those who challenge your thinking then you are not a leader – you’re an egomaniac.”

    Or you just may not have the strength of character to deal with challenges and contrary thinking. Regardless, you are probably not destined for success in leadership.

    3.“Understanding and respecting other’s perceptions is such a critical part of being an effective leader that absent this ability I truly believe you cannot be effective in a leadership role.”

    There is nothing more to be said. This is perhaps the most important message in this post.

    4.“My way or the highway” thinking, and/or positional dictatorships rarely create the culture and performance demonstrated by winning organizations.”

    I have known a few that due to lack of knowledge, experience, and willingness have led their organizations in this manner. I don’t know a single person who enjoyed working with them or who trusted them.

    5.“You see, the most important item to understand is that success as a leader has very little to do with your perception, but rather it has everything to do with the perception of others.”

    Another truism IMHO. It is not about us, it is about all of the people who are stakeholders in our success.

    6.“Those who place the care and regard of others above advancing their personal, positional, professional or political agendas will garner trust, respect and influence.”

    True leadership is not about what is in it for us. It is what we can do for others. By holding, believing, and promoting the needs of others above the needs of ourselves we will not only serve them, but we will also reap the rewards of our efforts.

    7.“The point is that understanding the perceptions of others affords you a source of intelligence, a learning opportunity, and the ability to keep lines of communication open.”

    Your conclusion is right on point. By understanding and managing the perception of others my managing our own attitudes and acceptance of others even when they don’t agree with us is vital to our ability to expand our own knowledge and skills and to be perceived as a true leader.

    Great post, Mike.

      mikemyatt

      October 21, 2010 at 10:44 am

      Wow…thanks for the thoughtful comment Gordon. I appreciate you taking the time to extract key points and offer your commentary. Thanks for sharing Gordon.

    Gordon R. Clogston

    October 21, 2010 at 10:45 am

    Mike,

    My last sentence should have read: "By understanding and managing the perception of others by managing our own attitudes and acceptance of others even when they don’t agree with us is vital to our ability to expand our own knowledge and skills and to be perceived as a true leader.

    Gordon

      mikemyatt

      October 21, 2010 at 10:50 am

      No worries…I thought that's what you meant. Thanks for the clarification Gordon.

    ATIG

    October 21, 2010 at 12:00 pm

    Mike, No one can learn from yes man.
    Closed mind cannot perceive the knowledge of others to improve theirs.
    To understand better others and not in bubble, we must be able to put ourself in the other mind.

      mikemyatt

      October 21, 2010 at 12:07 pm

      Agreed – closed minds limit opportunities and gate a leader's ability to understand. A closed mind simply doesn't allow for a clear and accurate view…Thanks for sharing.

    ATIG

    October 21, 2010 at 12:49 pm

    If we want to be a person broad spirit, we have leave our comfort zone by putting at challenge our vision of the world, from which the experiments are different.
    Transparency play for all ! Except if we are the kind of person who believe to be right all the time.

    Michael McKinney

    October 21, 2010 at 4:53 pm

    Totally agree with you Mike. For most of us, a balanced, rational thought is one that agrees with our own. And having people validate our thinking is comforting and feeds our ego. But we need to listen and understand dissenting opinions for two main reasons. First, truly understanding another point of view helps us to adjust our own if necessary and if we are teachable, refine our reasoning in light of other information and perspectives. It can only make our argument better and stronger or as sometimes is the case, change our perspective altogether. We all see the world from our own thinking and it is all too narrow. Understanding others can only broaden our thinking and increase our relevance and influence.

    Secondly, if we don’t go out of our way to understand other people’s perspectives, we handicap our ability to lead them. To be effective, we must begin by leading others from where they are not from where we wish them to be. We can only know how to connect by listening.

    Good material as always Mike!

    Thanks, Michael
    LeadershipNow

      mikemyatt

      October 21, 2010 at 5:07 pm

      I want so badly to disagree with you just so that we can test our theory, but alas I find myself in alignment with all points.:) Well stated as always Michael. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.

    Dan Rockwell

    October 21, 2010 at 8:54 pm

    Mike,

    Thanks for your post. I always enjoy reading and thinking about what you write. I'm with you, I love an exploration of ideas.

    My own experience validates your assessment that we have lost the ability to disagree. It seems we can't argue principles without taking things personally.

    The idea of a passionless discussion that focuses on principles is a novel and often unattainable idea.

    Perhaps we cannot separate our identify from ideas. Therefore, if we "lose" an argument we are somehow personally diminished.

    Thanks for your work,

    Dan Rockwell
    Leadership Freak

    nobilify

    October 22, 2010 at 8:48 am

    Mike, I really appreciate this topic. I have been a student participant of teams my entire life – both healthy and unhealthy. This discussion is so needed today, especially in circles of leadership. I read the blog last night and was thinking about it this morning as I was preparing to meet with one of our leaders to discuss some very difficult issues. As you know we all bring our entire past, baggage included into every relationship, and each and every debate. For good or bad it impacts us and we in turn return the favor to others. The deeper things tend to surface in these times of honest debate. So, I wanted to comment on the bow you put on your premise. "Being able to discern and debate subjective positions with objectivity is an art form that must be present for effective leadership."

    The dreaded art form is the source of my reply. This is one of those areas where you wish the science would work all the time. I have often wished we could just have a formula. Unfortunately, the wildcard is PEOPLE. We serve people, lead people, we relate to people, we encourage or discourage people, and we are people. Therefore the art you speak of sculpts with a very sharp blade – the tongue. Body language notwithstanding, it’s the words we say which inspires contagious commitment and action, imparts essential truth, speaks in volumes about how we really feel, and sometimes delivers devastating wounds. Once released, the things we say in debate and discussion, whether lighthearted or intense, can never really be pulled back, can they? Consequently, the art form you appropriately point out takes on either a healthy or unhealthy advance of this crucial process. With a knife a trained surgeon can do something that a skilled villain or even an experienced butcher could never do. He or she can wound with the intention of healing. One is discerning, calculated, methodical, vigilant, ultra-careful, and deliberately sensitive to the details; while the other is carving, cutting, slinging, digging, and deboning, with much less precision, and with an entirely different objective.

    So with this said, my comment is that healthy debate, besides being collegial, mutually rewarding on so many levels, and critical for effective leadership – should outright demonstrate our high value for the people we are connecting with, in an authentic and deeper (beneath the surface) dialogue, honoring our differences by the very manner in which we relate. You said, “Understanding and respecting others perceptions is such a critical part of being an effective leader that absent this ability I truly believe you cannot be effective in a leadership role.” I think this is central to the core values behind the art you write about here.

    Great stuff Mike!

    Joe Mascia

      mikemyatt

      October 22, 2010 at 10:33 am

      Hi Joe:

      Perhaps the most rewarding part of blogging is watching other leaders use this forum to refine their own thinking. You very eloquently described the issues addressed in the original post, and offered keen insights on what it takes to deal with people – even those with whom you don't agree. Thanks for sharing Joe.

    Dan Collins

    October 22, 2010 at 10:06 am

    Mike

    How do I offer a dissenting opinion to this piece? Perhaps by entering the absurd.
    Ego drives and Ego destroys. Ego diminishes and denies dissenting opinion. Ego states opinion – kind of what we are all doing here (just kidding Mike) 🙂

      mikemyatt

      October 22, 2010 at 10:36 am

      Hi Dan:

      Thank for the poignant warning about the perils associated with out of control egos. Few things will taint a leader's ability to perform like an arrogant, elitist attitude. Well said Dan…

    The Lost Art of Passionate Discourse

    October 29, 2010 at 7:50 am

    […] The Benefit of Dissenting Opinion Mike Myatt reminds us of the importance of vigorous debate.  I think the reticence of people to […]

    susanmazza

    October 29, 2010 at 7:59 am

    Gordon, I loved the key points you distilled here!

    Excellent points Mike and we do need to take a very serious look in the mirror in terms of our own relationship with dissent. Disagreeing does not equal disrespect, yet we seem to have developed a culture that doesn’t know the difference.

    I've been ranting a bit lately about the lost art of passionate discourse (and the cost of that to the health and success of our organizations). Your post finally got me to write about it. Here's the post.. .http://randomactsofleadership.com/2010/10/29/passionate-discourse/

      mikemyatt

      October 29, 2010 at 8:17 am

      Hi Susan:

      Thanks for sharing your insights, and the link to your post as well. I appreciate you stopping by Susan.

    […] The Benefit of Dissenting Opinion Mike Myatt reminds us of the importance of vigorous debate.  I think the reticence of people to […]

    […] unique perspectives, philosophical differences, and dissenting opinions are viewed as an opportunity as opposed to a set-back, growth and development are certain to […]

    Doris Crompton

    September 10, 2013 at 1:20 pm

    What you write about is not only true in a professional milieu but also in the family unit. First and foremost in the relationship between spouses and then when it comes to raising teenagers whose emerging minds are determined to carve our their chosen, unique individuality. Most arguments in the family unit are due to the a difference in perspective.
    There are two choices: one is to stand one’s ground, the other is to stretch one’s perspective enough to embrace the other party’s. That may be uncomfortable at first because it means that we have to get out of our comfort zone.
    If, however, we value the relationship more than our unwavering desire to be right, then , out of love and respect, we will agree to that stretch. It is about taking the high road.

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