How Leaders Can Use Opinions to Create Useful Outcomes
By Deanne Duncombe
Leaders and managers can only get their work done through others, which inevitably involves how they use language in a myriad of conversations (including email). Skilful use of one inevitable part of language – opinions – can have a surprising and pervasive effect on leadership effectiveness.
As a leader or manager, what are you creating from your opinions that you may not be aware of? How is what you are creating serving you?
Humans go about life, forming opinions about people, situations and events. These opinions often become our truth, informing the actions that we take. If we aren’t aware of how we are using our opinions, then we cannot be aware of the actions that we are taking and what we are creating from those opinions.
When Leaders Differentiate Fact from Opinions
Sometimes, when we talk about people, situations and events, we talk in facts. For example:
The finance meeting was at 2pm
Person X wrote the report for the CEO
The customer workshop started 20 minutes late
These are all statements that we can verify as true or false. If they are true, then we can refer to them as true – as being facts. It could be said that facts are describing what is already in existence in our world.
There are other times when we may think that we are describing what is already in existence, however we are really stating our opinions. For example:
The finance meeting was awful
Person X is incompetent
Person A never cares about starting customer workshops on time
Although we may have evidence to support the above statements, no third party can look at them and evaluate them as true or false. What is an awful meeting? There is no standard to describe an awful meeting, it is purely an opinion that will vary depending upon those experiencing the meeting. What I think is an awful meeting may be considered an amazing meeting by someone else. Given that these are opinions, neither party is right or wrong. It is important to note here that, while the meeting may have already existed in our world, the meeting being awful is something that has been created through language. We could have equally created a reality where the meeting was fabulous and, indeed, someone else who was present may have done exactly that.
When Leaders Notice Their Opinions and Choose Appropriate Action
We often tend to treat our opinions as truth, without even realising that we are doing so. For example, if we have an opinion that Person X is incompetent and we don’t allow ourselves to be aware of that opinion, we can go forward and treat it as a fact. In doing so, we are likely to unwittingly take action from a point where the only possibility we see is Person X being incompetent. How we treat Person X (and possibly the people around Person X) is going to relate very closely to the “truth” we hold around Person X being incompetent. Our one opinion of Person X has the potential to impact what work is given to Person X, what work is given to others who work with Person X, how we interact with people who have different opinions about Person X, and what moods we operate from when dealing with Person X and each other. Our opinions of Person X could even impact the opinions that we have of ourselves.
What would happen if we stopped to notice our opinions? What if we were to become curious about how we can use our opinions to take action, including the way we inter-act with others? What if we were to make conscious choices about the realities that we are creating?
A Leadership Example - Opinions in Action
I recall a time many years ago when I formed an opinion that a new team member was not a good fit for the organisation I was working in at the time. I was planning on performance managing the team member and I thought that this would end in termination of their employment. As I was considering how to manage the situation, I paused to reflect on my opinions of the individual. I then made a conscious decision to be curious about what might be happening for the individual that had led to me forming these opinions.
I sat with the team member and told them all of the great things that I had witnessed them doing. I then mentioned some of the challenges and asked them what was going on for them during the challenging times in our working relationship. The team member shared with me some uncertainty that they were experiencing in their role. They opened up and mentioned that some of that uncertainty was related to how the team member and I were interacting. When I realised what was happening, I was able to work with the team member to put some processes in place to help support them in their uncertainty. I was also able to commit to the team member that I would change some of my behaviours so that my interactions with the team member were more useful for both of us. The team member ended up being an amazing contributor to our team, and we were both disappointed when we each went out separate ways and were no longer working with each other.
In noticing my opinions and becoming aware of the action that those opinions were leading me to taking, I was able to work with the individual to obtain a very useful outcome. Had I not done so, I may have automatically used my opinions to take the default action of performance managing the team member. This would have cost the organisation time and money when, as it turned out, all I had to do was to look at the situation differently. Pausing and being aware of what was going on for me enabled me to create a reality where we were able to keep a team member who added significant value to our organisation.
Opinions and Leadership in Summary
There may be times when noticing our opinions completely changes the reality that we would have otherwise created. There may be times when noticing our opinions doesn’t change the actions that we want to take. This, I think, is perfectly legitimate. However, when we take the time to understand that our opinions are opinions and not fact, and we take the time to think about the reality that we are trying to create, then we are taking responsibility for our opinions and owning what we ultimately end up creating.
With leadership comes significant responsibility and I think that the responsibility associated with using our opinions is often one that is overlooked.
Some Time to Reflect
Think of a situation that is not currently working for you at work.
What opinions do you have about the situation?
Are you treating these opinions as if they are facts and as truth?
How is that serving you?
Deanne Duncombe is based in Canberra, Australia. She can be contacted at email@example.com and you can visit her website at leadingandbeing.com