Thursday, May 30, 2019
Some of the best meetings I’ve attended in recent years are those that I have had no opinions on. These were meetings where folks had disagreements, and the best I could offer was to walk in with an acknowledgment that I’ve no opinion, and that I’m here to help figure it out. Before each of those meetings, I did spend the time to research the problem statements, learn about the points of view, and consider potential trade-offs involved. Yet, as I walk in, I offered no solutions. I had nothing to gain or lose. I had no sides to pick. I might or might not have a role to play in the outcome.
Some of my not so effective meetings are those in which a couple of us in the room held strong opinions on the topic, were very articulate about those opinions, and were bent on keeping the discussion conform to their opinions.
Nowadays, my rule is to leave opinions at the door as much as possible.
But leaving opinions at the door is easier said than done. What if you can’t control the outcome? What if you don’t like the result? What if the result ends up disrupting what you’re currently doing or conflicts with what you want to accomplish? What if you end up not having any role in the outcome? This state is like walking on shaky ground and can make you uncertain about yourself.
Role of Opinions
However, opinions are an integral part of how we think. They play a crucial role in our decision making. They help us process and discard vast amounts of information and only zoom into those parts that seem relevant. Opinions make it easy for us to decide and act quickly.
Most of us hold opinions on a wide range of topics regardless of our expertise on those topics. We employ opinions to appear knowledgeable, persuasive, competent and confident. We rely on opinions as proxies for knowledge, thoughtfulness, and competence. For example, I’ve opinions on the state of politics, technology trends, arts and sciences, environment, religion and so on. I’m no expert on most of these topics, and yet, I can appear and feel like an expert by liking, commenting on, or sharing expert opinions on social media.
Opinions also give you confidence and make you feel certain. Imagine the confidence you feel when walking into a discussion, or before taking action? More often than not, such confidence is likely based on the opinions you formed on the subject.
Opinions are also easy. That’s why we all have plenty of them. Opinions are not scientific facts, and so we don’t need to prove ours. You can discard any point of view with “it is just your opinion.” Opinions are not hypotheses. So, we don’t need to subject them to testing with data.
That’s also why we can form opinions quickly. In contrast, activities like deliberation, discovering facts, and testing hypotheses are slow and time-consuming. You have to work hard to unearth facts, form hypotheses, and test them.
Over time, opinions become part of our identity. As others discover our opinions, they put us into groups. They make us stereotypes. Opinions make it easy for others to deal with us.
We often hang out with people that share our opinions. Since we are more likely to be persuaded by ideas that form in our minds than those of others, we form allegiances with people that express opinions that are similar to ours. Consequently, the social groups that we’re part of converging into closed echo chambers. Such grouping makes us feel safe. We belong.
Workplaces are no different. We use opinionated software frameworks and tools for productivity. We pick or discard solutions just because we don’t “like” something about those.
Even in the most data and hypotheses-centric workplace cultures, opinions continue to rule. That’s because, apart from not needing scrutiny to form one, forming opinions is a part of how we think.
Therein lies a trap.
Through the eloquent and repetitive articulation of opinions, we have the power to extinguish deliberation and dialog and shape the course of the group that we are part of. Most political speech and marketing spin function like this. The war on Iraq from 2002 is an excellent example in recent history. Then White House and the cabinet managed to shape the public opinion with little factual information to back up the claim of weapons of mass destruction. Fires from that war are still raging in the middle east. Similarly, we’re currently going through a period of opinion-shaping about global warming, where opinions and their articulation matter more than facts and hypotheses.
Similarly, significant initiatives get launched or suspended based on the opinions of positional leaders with titles at work. The highest-paid person’s opinions (HiPPO) may override data and other observations. Eloquent opinionated individuals take over conversations in meetings to steer the course to conform to their opinions. Senior leaders’ names get dropped to shift the course of an activity or to override some data, purely based on such leaders’ perceived opinions.
However, firmly held opinions can prevent us from learning. Opinions water down dialog and discovery of facts. They block us from listening.
Instead of letting a free-form dialog happen, when we don’t leave our opinions at the door, we end up forcing discussions to conform to our opinions. Meetings dissolve into arguments. Consequently, our own opinions become a barrier between us and potential opportunities. Opinions can get us stuck.
Leaving Opinions at the Door
That’s why it is important to practice the art of leaving the opinions at the door. There are several tricks to help.
First, recognize that you can’t afford not to have opinions on everything. You keep/nurture opinions on most things but the most important ones. Not having an opinion in front of an opinionated group will get you bulldozed. Not every workplace culture may have a framework for baloney detection and for minimizing such bulldozing. Using written forms (not slideware) of communication to lay out arguments can help.
Second, don’t be lazy when forming opinions on important topics that matter to you. It takes hard work to form well-grounded opinions. Keep verifying your opinions by adding facts.
Third, when disagreeing, ask yourself if you’re disagreeing based on facts, or based on your opinions. Change your disagreement into a question. At the same time, avoid the tendency to ask leading questions to confirm your opinions.
Finally, be willing to let go of opinions. I find that getting data, studying alternatives, and seeking dis-conforming facts help us let go of opinions.
Our opinions are like the debt we carry on our backs, wherever we go. They are useful until they are not. I remind myself that, to be comfortable with not having opinions, I must be comfortable with saying that I don’t know, yet.
I will leave you with this quote by 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.