The Importance of an Opinion
In more than one conversation with colleagues last week I was challenged to think what makes the difference between those that go on to senior management and those that do not? Why do similar people, with similar work experiences and intelligence levels somehow become differentiated? Why do some rise up the management chain and others languish in the same position for years on end? There are of course many reasons but the one that sprang to mind is one that I don’t think is well explored and should be. Because in modern business, especially in America, those that succeed tend to have a very vocal opinion. Even if it’s wrong.
Think about senior management of any organization (businesses, government, nonprofits) – they are constantly being asked to make decisions and have an opinion on very varied subjects, often with imperfect knowledge of a situation. Those that can form an opinion very quickly, and be prepared to defend it, tend to naturally rise to the top. That is not to say that those opinions are always correct nor that they can’t be swayed with a rational argument to change that opinion. But the inverse is not inspiring – no one would like to see a leader who seems to take everyone else’s opinions as their own, that changes their opinion whenever a colleague argues against it or worse still, seems incapable of forming their own opinion, in the time required.
This may seem elementary but I think it is a skill which is often overlooked and certainly under appreciated. Any leader will tell you that there’s nothing worse than running a meeting when no one steps up to offer an opinion and the room is in stony silence. Because without opinions it’s hard to have innovation. We’re often told in the modern business world we need to ensure that we’re collaborating as a team, always appreciative of everyone else’s voice and not being confrontational. There is a danger however that it becomes too easy for team members to rely on others to form an opinion or, in fear of upsetting someone or exposing themselves, not be prepared to form and defend their own opinion.
I believe having opinion and being prepared to defend it shows confidence in your own abilities and a certain level of intelligence - after all to process data and information, then consider what is my emotional and intelligent reaction to this information and then form an articulate way of conveying that opinion to others, often in real time, is a complex series of brain functions. In fact those that are ‘opinionated’ are also often those that are not willing to accept the status quo, that have the ability to think on their feet and can form complex arguments when defending a point of view. People with opposing opinions have an opportunity to debate with the team, see things from someone else’s point of view and ultimately may generate new and more original ideas by working through their arguments rather than avoiding them.
Conversely those that don’t have something to say on a subject, even if they are intelligent people, or simply like to take their time to consider things will tend to come across as quiet, reserved or slow to process information. There is always a place for quiet and considerate people who like to fully digest before coming back with a considered opinion. Unfortunately in this fast moving world those people are not likely to make it to senior management and if you take too long to form an opinion the data may have changed anyway. Those people will remain the “do-ers” who are running analysis - for the more senior to form opinions about.
This debate about opinions does not need to be work related either. In years gone by when people actually read newspapers cover-to-cover there was always the Opinion piece - where the editorial staff would take great pains to consider the ‘official’ point of view of the paper on any number of subjects. Nowadays we can all get the news digest from a myriad of sources, not all of which are trustworthy or well researched and are often condensed in to 140 characters or less. Rather than take the time to think something through, talk to friends and acquaintances and develop one’s own opinion on a subject, it’s often easiest and quickest to just adopt the last thing you heard as your own opinion. I have an 11-year old and I try to challenge him to not just follow what’s going on in the world but also take some time (which is a challenge with these kids) to think about his reaction and opinion about it. When challenged for an opinion It’s often met with a shrug and a “dunno” but the process is an important one to go through and one I will continue to push.
So if we return to the working world and I were to offer some advice on how to become more opinionated and to stand out from the crowd, I would say - don’t accept everything “as read”. Don’t just read or hear things but stop and think – what is my opinion on this? Why do I care? What does this mean to me? How would I defend this opinion? And be well read, challenge yourself to form opinions and defend them on any matter of subjects, especially those that you don’t know a lot about, because you never know when they will come in useful in your work or social life. Don’t assume any author or other human being is always right or knows more than you do. Challenge them - why do they have that opinion? What is their situation and how would that influence their opinions? Do I believe it? If not, why not? And when your “gut” comes back with an embryonic opinion, use your brain to analyze whether it’s sensible and where did it come from? Does it hold water? Is it just emotional or a bias? Would it stand up to criticism? These are all critical thinking skills that everyone should take the time to develop.
And one last word of caution – let’s not confuse having an opinion with arrogance. You can have an opinion and be prepared to defend it without sounding all-knowing, pretentious or confrontational. In fact those people that resign themselves to arrogance or who take offence at those that challenge their opinions are most likely inflexible, insecure or fear that someone will see through their lack of knowledge. An intelligent person should always be prepared to change their opinion if they are shown to be in the wrong. And of course the other big risk with being opinionated or just leaping to an opinion with limited knowledge on a subject, is that you run the risk of just looking ill-informed and reckless. You do that too many times and you’ll seriously damage your reputation. So take controlled risks with your opinions but don’t get too far out ahead of your skis!
So, let’s embrace opinions and opinionated people – afterall they’re running our companies and our countries. And let’s take the time to indulge in good creative debate with well-reasoned and informed thoughts.
Well, that’s my opinion anyway.