Good leaders say, Bring on the Opposition

by Jill Malleck

If you are an approachable leader, who involves others in your work, there will be times during the workday when you will face opposition. Not everyone will see it your way. The bravest detractors, who are not always the most diplomatic, will speak up in a meeting and present an alternative viewpoint.  Others at the meeting will nod, but later send you a personal email with their misgivings. In another case, you may write something and distribute it for approval or input as a courtesy, but not really expecting any changes. What a surprise when readers don’t question the wording, but resist the very idea of the message. In another scenario you expect something to fly through a committee meeting vote, and instead it gets stalled in heated discussion.

When any of this happens, we have a tendency to get defensive. Our defensiveness is exasperated by tight deadlines and high expectations for delivery. Every question, every redo, is seen as a hassle and a risky delay. But a defensive stance will get in the way of better work and wise decisions. Defensiveness tends to reduce people to positions and polarize them there. It also invests more emotion in the discussion than might be healthy.

So, how do leaders learn to use opposing views to do better work, instead of viewing them as barriers to success?

Pay attention to your initial reaction. When you first receive someone’s negative view or challenging questions, you will likely feel something. Some people describe it as: “My back goes up.” It may be more a tightness in the stomach, or dryness in your throat. You may feel hot or humiliated. Accompanying internal thoughts may sound like this: “I knew he didn’t support this project.” Or “She always has to change something.” Attributing negative motives and causes is not an uncommon reaction. So, stop and ask yourself what story your mind is concocting now.


Relax your defensive stance. Take a moment to breathe slowly and more deeply. In a meeting, focus on the words being said instead of the hidden meanings your busy mind is attaching to them. Gaze downward and take notes if it helps. If you are really upset about the areas of disagreement, take a break. Go for a walk, get a drink of water, and turn your attention to something more positive for a moment. Work on loosening the tightness in your stomach, neck, hands. Scold your inner voice for storytelling. Ask for more time to consider what you have heard. In meetings, use a Parking Lot page to defer items until later.


Now, once relaxed, revisit the opposing views.  Decide not to take it personally. Remember that the words in the email, or on the page, or being spoken, are just words and may not be crisp and accurate representations of the sender’s ideas and concepts. Not everyone is a great communicator and some people are too blunt, too aggressive, too opinionated or too ambiguous. Your direct reports or peers may be nervous about disagreeing with you. Tell yourself to focus on understanding what their words really mean. Look for facts. Get curious. Ask more questions to really understand. Assume there is some merit in what is being said – even if it’s not obvious to you. Your job is to ferret out the valid points.


Think about what you have learned. Can you see it as a gift? Sort and sift what you have learned to make sense of it. Consider the possibility that you are heading in a wrong direction or that you need to slightly shift your approach. Even the unlikeliest source may unknowingly represent others who are silent. If this perspective is not considered, you could face disaster later. Ask yourself what else this distraction points to. You may be moving ahead faster than your team or your organization is ready for. The challenges and questions people ask may be a sign that you need to slow down. Perhaps you need to communicate more details. If others are not privy to the context and strategy behind your action or recommendation (because it’s in your head as you work but has not been articulated) they can ask questions that seem simple to you. 


Decide to forge ahead or make a change. When you are sure you have done your due diligence, you have listened, you have asked questions, you have sorted – then you can decide. Dealing with opposing viewpoints doesn’t mean you abdicate responsibility for outcomes. You need to move forward or you risk being seen as wishy-washy or lacking confidence. Moving forward can take many forms. It may mean re-communicating the purpose and benefits of the work. It may mean continuing in the same direction, and explaining why you have chosen to do so. It may mean changing tactics or dropping something you were holding tightly to. It may even mean a complete reversal.

Whatever your decision, remember to thank people that offer an opposing view. Great leadership is about being open to influence, being smart enough to realize no one has all the answers, and creating an environment where diverse viewpoints are welcomed for the good of the business.

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