Seeing Both Sides of an Issue

The ability to see both sides of an issue is a critical executive skill.  Yet, in typical corporate America culture, that skill is all too often lost.  Why?

  • Things get partisan:  sales wants X, marketing wants Y, finance wants Z.
  • Discussions turn blame-oriented.  Instead of working to solve problems, people work to avoid blame.
  • Managers lose interest in understanding the alternative positions.
  • People don’t listen to each other, often because they’re too busy thinking of what they’re going to say next.  (Resulting in what one friend calls “parallel independent conversations.”)

The solution is to force managers to articulate both sides of important issues.  If a person is advocating thing X instead of thing Y, I want them to be able to clearly and convincing explain the advantages of both.  The best decisions come, in my opinion, when you hold two opposing ideas in your mind at once, and then choose.

When done correctly, you will see:

  • A focus on solutions, not blame.  Example:  “help me understand how you want to solve the problem.”
  • Managers looking forward, not back.  This flows naturally from the prior point.
  • Managers practicing active listening, a great technique for trying to understand the other person’s point of view.  Example:  “so, Ted, you’re telling me that you think we’re doing too many tradeshows that result in poor quality leads — is that correct?”

But seeing both sides of an issue only gets you halfway to your goal.   In many big companies, the unintended dysfunctional consequence of doing so is passivity and fence sitting:

  • Well,we could do A or we could do B.  Frankly, I’m open.
  • The consensus in the meeting was that both A and B were good options.  (This hits my “launch” button!)
  • Well, there are certainly advantages and disadvantages to both options.
  • We should pick the option that keeps the most other options option.  (Also known as The MBA Credo).

Somewhere along the way in corporate America, managers forgot that they are paid to make decisions.  The point of seeing both sides isn’t to avoid decision making.  The point is to make better decisions.

To ensure a focus on decisions, I usually run a line of questioning that starts with the decision and backs up from there.

  • What do you think we should do?  (And push for a single answer)
  • Why do you think we should do it?
  • Why should we do the alternative?

If you’re already performing these techniques, great.  If you’re not, give them a try and let me know how it works.

3 responses to “Seeing Both Sides of an Issue

  1. very useful advice … I especially liked how you identify the ‘spiral’ into blame orientated conversation and thought ‘parallel independent conversations’ apropos; though having lived a few decades outside the US I don’t fully agree that this is an ‘american’ attitude though admittedly I am no longer an expert on what is ‘american’ anymore.

    I would add that another job a manager should be good at is assembling groups of people who are able to come to a compromise together … sometimes hiring decisions may have been right for the gap in skills required in the moment but hiring an individual who is naturally the wrong fit for the team can become a real problem later on.

  2. The question to ask is also why it generally becomes a “blame game”. Are the negotiation powers different? Are you working within the culture which accepts honest mistakes?

  3. Pingback: An Ode to the Bearers of Tension ← Casual Fridays

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