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The Power of Negative Thinking

Alfred P. Sloan, one of America’s first celebrity CEOs, wasn’t afraid to shake things up in the board room—which might explain how he was able to revitalize General Motions during the 1920s when it was close to bankruptcy. At one meeting of his top executives, Sloan stated: “Gentlemen, I take it we all are in complete agreement on the decision we’ve just made.” Everyone nodded. “Then,” said Sloan, “I propose we postpone further discussion until our next meeting, to give ourselves time to develop disagreement—and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.”

Just as in Sloan’s time, most organizations today need less complete agreement and more constructive conflict. Rather than discouraging resistance and negativity, leaders should surround themselves with people who can debate passionately before a decision is made—and then unite behind the final decision.

Think that’s easy to do? Think again. Just the opposite dynamics are at work in most organizations. Too many people sit in meetings and keep silent, or gloss over the effect a given proposal will have on their department or co-workers. They sit quietly, while the leader proceeds as if everyone is aligned. But this “consensus” is not real. Later (in “off the record” conversations) these same folks may very well undercut or sabotage the proposal.

On management’s side of the equation, too many leaders emulate Samuel Goldwyn (the fabled founder of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) who once said, “I don’t want any yes-men around me. I want them to tell me the truth—even if it costs them their jobs.”

Goldwyn’s comment underscores the concern that even if a leader sincerely wants to hear dissenting opinions, most employees—especially those at lower levels of the organization—find it difficult and uncomfortable to speak up in a formal setting. They’re unsure whether the leader genuinely wants to deal with conflict. They fear ridicule or retaliation for “being negative.”

Even a culture of teamwork, based on developing familiarity and friendly cooperation between employees, can result in congeniality taking precedence over the introduction of ideas that might prove unpopular. In an environment that values collaboration as the top priority, employees hesitate to take any action that causes tension or appears to be divisive.

If you want to take concrete steps to build constructive conflict into your decision-making processes, here are a few suggestions:
  • Assign someone on your team to play the role of “Devil’s Advocate” to ensure a critical eye.
  • Ask part of your group to think like the firm’s competitors (or customers or employees) in order to surface any flaws in a set of core assumptions.
  • Establish “ground rules” that will stimulate task-oriented disagreement—but minimize interpersonal conflict.
  • Keep the proceedings “transparent” by making decisions based on what goes on in the meeting, not in behind-the-scenes maneuvering.
  • Make sure your team members represent a diversity of thinking styles, skill levels and backgrounds. If they don’t, invite people with various points of view to offer their perspectives.
  • Start out with a question and don’t voice an opinion. Once you’ve said, “Here's what I'm thinking . . .” you have already influenced your team.
  • If you really want honest feedback from your team, be the first person to admit your own mistakes.
  • Really listen to everyone's ideas. Let people know that you value their input and are taking into consideration what they have to say.
  • Clearly state the behaviors you want during the discussion (constructive conflict) and as a result of the discussion (shared commitment to the outcome).

    The most successful organizations harness the power of creative collaboration without falling victim to “group think.” Only leaders who understand how to foster constructive conflict will be able to achieve this delicate balancing act.