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Why you must keep a contrarian on your team

Oct 24, 2008 Business Daily, Management

“…suppose you imagine yourself and a group of experts who seem to have converged on an enlightened opinion which has arguments to support it, and it has prominent influential people saying that. It can be difficult for someone to stand up in that room and air what seem to be half-baked or half-formed doubts about it. It can be kind of damaging to your reputation. And you imagine that they have a reason to dismiss these doubts. But you don’t want to be responsible for bringing it up – especially when they’re reaching a decision…(doubters) often retreat at that point, because they may just have a sense that they’re being annoying, that they will lose status in the group.”

Robert Shiller, interviewed in Portfolio Magazine, May 2, 2008

Robert Shiller is a prominent Yale economist whose prominence has suddenly magnified. He is the fellow who keeps pointing out that bubbles are building and will burst – and he’s usually right.

Shiller predicted the Internet-stock bust in 2000, against the tide of opinion. Since 2005, he has been warning of a house-price collapse in America, and its potential for triggering a world-wide recession. No one listened. Earlier this year, he warned that house prices falls could exceed those of the Great Depression. Even those who had the most to lose did not pay heed. Instead, he was labelled “Mr Bubble” and “Dr Doom”.

I guess those coming up with the cute monickers would be wishing they had acted on his advice. They would be a lot better off now, when sub-prime toxicity based on false expectations around house prices has indeed rocked the world.

The wider point is this: too many of us, in corporate as well as personal worlds, are keen to surround ourselves with “like-minded” people. We want unity of purpose, and want to see positive emotional backing for all our initiatives. Yet we could all benefit from having a few Shillers amongst us – people who say “wait a minute” even when the tide of opinion is flowing strongly in one direction.

This is a particular problem for chief executives. We often hire and promote in our own image, and value people whose opinions generally agree with ours. Equally, there is a tendency amongst the ambitious manager to always keep the corner of one eye on the boss, to play the validation game. Bosses’ signals are given a lot of attention, and there tends to be synchronicity of opinion over time in management teams.

This is very dangerous, and it is not what a good boss should want at all. The great chief invites challenge, and seeks out opposition to his or her views, if only to test and strengthen them. That is the hallmark of great leadership – an ability to accept opposition and criticism, and to use it shape and sharpen one’s own viewpoint.

Shiller calls himself an “oppositional personality.” If you had been the boss of Lehman Brothers, or of HBOS, you might now be wishing very hard that you had had such a pesky fellow in your team whose doubts were vocal and whose point of view was robust. It might have saved you your career and your shareholders millions.

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