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Sorry, Leaders Aren’t Entitled to Be Opinionated

“But I’m entitled to my opinion!” a vice president insisted. I was facilitating a work session with a client’s leadership team. Our goal was to resolve a longstanding business problem, with the full participation of dueling factions within the group.

If you’ve ever been part of a management team that’s going in circles on a crucial issue, you know the process can cause great offense, and fuel anger and resentment. That’s why a facilitator can be useful: to help participants expose any underlying conflict that’s feeding their resistance to resolution, and to identify and confront both interpersonal and structural implications and triggers.

Otherwise, even when you’re dealing with senior executives — like the objecting vice president — most participants take their usual positions and give their standard arguments. Sometimes it takes an outsider to point out when they’re holding forth about long-held beliefs and strongly felt emotions rather than using relevant data to clarify issues and answer questions.

Opinions Are a Source of Decision Data

Committed people often believe that the fact that they have opinions should make a decision obvious — perhaps even more so when they’re deeply wedded to their views without significant or accurate evidence to back them up. Our feelings are facts — they exist as tangible things in the world. But that is not enough reason for them to drive business decisions.

After this facilitated session, the vice president and I discussed both the legitimacy of having an opinion, and the responsibility of having an educated opinion, not one based purely on taste and preferences.

Relying on one’s personal perspective as a reason to hamstring a process without bringing relevant, new evidence to bear sounds more like a 1950s parent than a thoughtful business person: “Because I said so! And if it’s the way I feel about it, then it’s obviously right and true.” Mature executives with emotional intelligence outgrow the mindset that the world revolves around them and their opinions.

Not All Opinions Are Created Equal

How much should any single opinion count? Does it matter how strongly that opinion is held?

Leaders’ opinions automatically go on the table as data points in the formulation of the decision-making dialog. But if the leaders are not open to the opinions of others who have expertise, savvy, a personal stake, or new information to share, then they’re acting as autocrats, not as thoughtful or progressive leaders.

Still, any opinion being considered must be able to hold water. So when you’re assessing a variety of viewpoints, it’s reasonable to ask kindly, “What’s your evidence or basis for that stance?” It’s also valuable to dig deeper to understand future implications. Ask participants to take their views to their logical conclusions: “Before I/we make a judgment, I’d like to understand your rationale. Why do you think that would be the cause/outcome?”

Say your Director of Operations has been making decisions on his own every quarter for the last 10 years, and has been wrong only twice, it’s probably still worth taking his opinion. His pattern of accuracy and track record of satisfactory, money-making results may be strong enough that when he sniffs the air and says, “I think it’s best to go in this direction,” it should count more than someone else’s gut feeling.

On the other hand, if your analytics group prepares hundreds of multipage reports each month, but the analysts push the buttons without fully understanding the ramifications of the numbers they’re presenting and the reports have a history of being error-ridden, then it doesn’t make sense to use the data for decision-making without checking the accuracy of the specific reports you’re relying on.

The Leader Sets the Tone

Madonna said, “Listen, everyone is entitled to my opinion.” The vice president in my facilitation felt the same way! But unilaterally calling the shots is rarely a successful business strategy, and it’s certainly not one that most executives can apply. If your team has a pattern or habit of making decisions without clear supportive evidence, slow everything down. Explain to them that, as a group, you all need to be more conscious and intentional about the decision-making process.

Because you want open, thoughtful discussion of your options and opportunities, it’s useful to emphasize that everyone is absolutely entitled to their own opinion, but that those opinions are more likely to be accepted as useful and valid by others if they’re educated opinions, based on reliable data.

Onward and upward,

LK

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