It’s great when people agree with you, isn’t it? It’s a wonderful validation – of your thoughts, your ideas… of you. It makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Yes, it’s great when people agree with you.
Except it doesn’t move the needle. Especially when the agreement comes too early.
There’s a great scene in the old TV series The West Wing. Leo McGarry is the Chief of Staff to liberal Democratic president Jed Bartlet. In this scene, Leo is offering a job to wickedly smart conservative Republican Ainsley Hayes. Ainsley is confused as to why a liberal president would want a conservative Republican working in the White House. Leo then says a line that I think should be committed to memory by every leader at every level:
“The president likes smart people who disagree with him.”
If you’re a leader, substitute your name for “the president” (unless you happen to be the president, in which case you should probably still substitute your name, because referring to yourself by your title is stupid and pretentious). Let’s just make it simple. Here’s the new sentence:
“I like smart people who disagree with me.”
I want you to make that one of your primary leadership mantras. “I like smart people who disagree with me.”
If you want to build your muscles, you do resistance training. The resistance can be in the form of weights, elastic bands, or your own body (for example, when doing pushups and pull-ups). Resistance makes muscles stronger.
Even the best ideas benefit from resistance. This resistance comes in the form of pushback by a smart person. Even if the smart person is just playing devil’s advocate, the challenge serves a purpose. When an idea is challenged, one of three things will happen:
The idea will be reinforced.
The idea will be reevaluated.
The idea will be abandoned.
Any of these three is preferable to the idea being blindly accepted by a team that’s either too intimidated to question, or too disengaged to care.
When an idea is challenged, it is examined. This examination will find one of three things about the idea, which correspond to the list above:
The idea is sound.
The idea is flawed but can be improved/fixed.
The idea is flawed, and cannot be improved. (Even in this case, though, the “bad” idea could be the spark that leads to the “good” idea.)
Agreement is a good thing, but not when it’s automatic; not when it’s a rubber stamp.
Agreement is a good thing when it comes at the end of smart debate. Agreement is a good thing when it rises out of disagreement.
That’s why, as a leader, you should learn to like smart people who disagree with you.