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Examining Perspective: Engaging with Difficult People

The Impact Group leadershipIn his New York Times bestseller, Principles, billionaire investor and philanthropist Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Consulting, challenges leaders to willingly and purposefully accept their most uncomfortable realities as a part of a comprehensive strategy for success.

Namely, Dalio challenges leaders to embrace the fact that there will always be dissenters, critics and naysayers within any organization. No matter the company, these are virtual certainties that are part of the culture and fabric of every system.

While many find engagement with detractors a particularly insufferable experience, Dalio touts the tremendous value and potential in such relationships. He confidently states in Work Principle 5.2 that those in leadership positions would be well-served to... 

“find the most believable people possible who disagree with you and try to understand their reasoning.” 

Naturally, we are quick to dismiss the opinions of people who focus their energy, time and efforts in unconstructive ways. And who can find blame in such a decision?

Many times, we have invested an inordinate amount of time trying to “flip” people who maintain this type of perspective, and we grow exhausted in our attempts to shift their outlook or position.

However, we would be wise to reconsider our approach with those inside the organization who have been metaphorically “written off” as unsalvageable. Perhaps it is time to reengage these individuals in an atypical context and from an altogether different perspective.

Those charged with leading the organization should regularly engage with colleagues who share a differing perspective, idea or strategy. (Yes, even those who haven’t quite figured out how to respectfully and appropriately express these views.) Consider it a dual opportunity to provide leadership coaching and resources to a colleague in need while simultaneously connecting to new ideas and positions.

Arguably, time spent dissecting the perspectives of these dissenters is exponentially more valuable than the same tired engagement you receive with those who walk in lock step with your current philosophy.

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The Advantages of Engaging Dissenting Opinions 

By challenging the status quo and accepting the inherent discomfort, pain and struggle associated with tough (but critical) conversations, leaders open a new world that was previously closed to them. This includes:

  • New Angles & Perspectives 

As humans, we are biologically predisposed to look out for ourselves – it’s part of the reason we have evolved and flourished over the centuries.

It’s simply in our nature to focus inward and to find comfort in the things that create a sense of consistency and familiarity in the chaotic world around us. This is true for all organizations.

Systems, by their very nature, seek equilibrium – the space that feels safe and predicable so that we can live without the worry or concern of radical change. 

While enviable from several vantage points, this perpetual state of comfort is not optimal for those wishing to flourish, disrupt or otherwise create something enduring.

Like all of life’s endeavors, we must stretch ourselves if we want to develop capacity and reach levels that were previously unattainable. We do this by engaging with people, thoughts and actions that are unfamiliar and (sometimes) downright scary.

Look no further than the initial conversations between Steve Jobs and Apple executives, where he attempted to convince them that the future of one of the world’s largest computer companies was the cellphone and the digital music industry. 

In a similar sense, these outlier visions philosophies currently exist inside of your organization. It is the role of the leader to extract them via consistent and applied methods of engagement.

  • Teaching Others Something New/Learning About Yourself

Challenging yourself to engage with difficult individuals may not always yield the panacea of ideas you had originally envisioned. And that’s perfectly fine!

Depending on the nature of your conversations and interactions, you have likely refined and sharpened skills that will benefit you in the future. This may include: negotiating, bargaining, finding common ground, showing grace/restraint, storytelling and persuasion.

Chances are good that you will be asked to review and explain your point of view, forcing you to reflect and examine the ideals upon which you place such high value.

While listening to the rationale of others, you have the opportunity to truly engage in meaningful dialogue, modeling a standard of excellence for the system as a whole.

Many organizations can point to a document that attempts to define its daily mission and vision. Others proudly promote a standard of excellence by which all employees are measured. But how often do we get the opportunity to make these a living, breathing reality?

Complex and sometimes arduous conversations provide the perfect backdrop to put theory into practice.

  • Join Forces to Create Something Unique

An interesting byproduct of connecting in dialogue with those whose perspectives and opinions are diametrically opposed to your own is that of synergy. Yes, synergy.

While the term is most often used in the context of like-minded, team-oriented partnerships, synergy can also occur when you least expect it.

When you approach conversations with an open mind and in the spirit of collaboration, creative outcomes that combine particular elements of both parties can produce greater outcomes than the sum total of both parts.

It takes courage and an open mind to work through this process. There is give and take. You have to be willing to fight for ideas that you believe are non-negotiable while, at the same time, remaining open to ideas that are not your preference.

Let me be clear though – this is in no way an endorsement to simply placate difficult individuals for the sake of emotional capital or to throw them a proverbial “bone.” Rather, it is an honest attempt to improve outcomes by remaining open to the fact that you (acting in isolation) are at a tremendous disadvantage in terms of the overall perspective and experience of the whole.

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The process by which we come to understand the reasoning of those whose opinions and perspectives differ from our own is invaluable. Unfortunately, the inherent difficulty and tremendous energy required to truly commit to this process is more than many are willing to undertake.

That said, those wishing to gain an edge and an authentic advantage will find a way to connect in this fashion. Inviting this challenge just might prove to be your most important investment.

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