Encourage Contrarian Thinking

Very often leaders are emboldened by people who are in agreement with their ideas.

  • That sounds great! I’ll get right on it.
  • Brilliant idea! No way we can lose this one.
  • This will really knock the competition on their arse.

The employee you REALLY want on your team is the one that says, “Hold up! I see three ways this can go sideways. Did we think this through? Did we ask for input from customers (nod to New Coke), vendors (hello State of NC), or our employees (here’s looking at you, Google).

As a consultant, I believe that part of what you pay me for is my ability to “see the other side;” to bring questions and alternative perspectives to your organization. When I worked as an employee my approach was always to ask, “How can I break this?” much like testing a new software… what if I did this? or this? or this pressure is applied?

Contrarian thinkers – and similarly, devil’s advocates – aren’t negative for the sake of being negative; they are thinking ahead to the future and to ramifications of your, or your company’s, actions.

If you are a leader and a developer of future leaders, here are three ways to encourage contrarian thinkers:

  1. Always have two meetings: Don’t make decisions at the first discussion of a new idea. Simply have an open discussion about the idea (new product, new process, new hire) and allow a few days for people to think about it. You might even want to charge your attendees with coming to meeting #2 with at least one “argument” against the idea. This process will prevent ideas from becoming run-away before they’ve been thoroughly vetted. Yes, it will take more time to make decisions, but they will be good (or at least better) decisions.
  2. When addressing your followers, always ask, “What am I missing?” This is especially important to ask of people on the front-line. They are the ones who are actually doing the work and have a pulse on what customers, vendors, and fellow employees are thinking and feeling.
  3. Praise those who come forward with their opposing views. When you ask the “what am I missing?” question, always thank the person who offers their negative outlook. Your job is not to argue the opposing view, but to give it consideration. You might even ask open-ended questions to gather more information, such as “do you have an example you could share?” or ask of the group, “have others seen this same phenomenon?”

By engaging in a conversation, purposefully asking for opposing views, and thanking the contrarian for offering their insight, you are encouraging others to do so in the future; which means you are building a stronger company and a community of forward-thinking employees which helps your organization to foresee and mitigate potential risk.

NOTE: This article was originally published on LinkedIn.