Sunday, June 6, 2010

Argue as if you are right, listen as if you are wrong

My friend Dr Robert Sutton, a Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University, believes that we can get more done, collaborate more effectively, and be happier all at the same time if we apply this tenet in our interactions with others.

It's simple: when discussing something about which there is disagreement, make your own argument as cogently and strongly as you can. Then, when it is time to hear what the other person has to say, listen to them from the viewpoint that you are wrong, even before the person begins to speak.

Bob insists the idea was not his, but one he learned about from Paul Saffo and Karl Weick.

Saffo's version is, "Have strong opinions, weakly held." It is the shortest, yet most evocative, of the descriptions of the concept.

The obvious benefit in employing this technique is that both parties are open to movement from their opening positions in the discussion. That's the only way a positive outcome, one which is a true win/win, can emerge: a willingness to listen and to modify one's own thinking on a matter.

Dr Sutton has a new book coming out late this summer, Good Boss, Bad Boss, which is bound to only further enhance his reputation among the general public as a smart and common-sense-displaying guy. His last book, The No Asshole Rule, was a bestseller in several countries and the "best business book" winner at the Quill Awards in 2007. In it, he detailed the hazards a company invites when it allows jerks to remain, particularly at the executive level.

He has written a number of books with fellow Stanford prof Jeffrey Pfeffer in addition to his solo efforts. His blog, Work Matters, is a regular stopping point for me. Bob is insightful, yet not preachy. He is always open (just as he teaches) to hearing differing views. I find his determination to use evidence-based management techniques as the basis for his writing most refreshing. Pundits often spout without basis in fact as they grind their particular ax, and that's not Bob. When he says something which is out of the mainstream line of thinking, you can bet he has the research to back it up.

As you may have guessed by now, I heartily recommend all of the Sutton books to anyone who is in management, desires a career in management, or anticipates needing to know something about people (if one of those categories is not you, go back to your home planet).


Will Conley said...

I like the no asshole rule. I think it's the job of every leader to tolerate zero assholishness in the workplace - no matter how great an employee-in-a-vacuum the asshole in question may be.

Rick Hamrick said...

There is a level of courage required in order to boot stellar performers who also happen to be assholes. Will, it is a courage seldom seen in the executive offices of most companies.

It's easy to get rid of the underperforming people who are also jerks. What is more poisonous is the jerk who is tolerated. It proves, on a daily basis, that the company's management will accept bad behavior in return for great ROI.

When employees see this tolerance, they find their greater selves undermined and their slimier sides encouraged.