Why leaders should learn to love their fiercest opposition…

All leaders experience ‘opposition’ as they move through their career and each finds a way to deal with it, with varying levels of success. How often have you mulled over how to ‘bring someone onboard’, ‘chart a path to compromise’ or ‘overcome an obstacle’?

These are common enough thought patterns for leaders and yet each assumes one critical point. That the other individual is on a different ‘side’, polarized from your own and therefore presenting, on some level, a difficulty. Adversarial systems set this up but it is rarely a helpful construct when you are sat surrounded by team members motivated, on some level, by a common goal.

When opposition emerges, we tend to wrap a story around what it is happening to help us make sense of it – and very often we assume negative intent – they are trying to undermine us, they don’t like us or don’t believe in us. It is startling how quickly that escalation can take place. So what does the skillful leader do?

They assume a wholly positive intent as a platform from which to explore the opposition that has been presented. They ‘choose’ to believe that the other individual is seeing things differently and is able to add a perspective that no one else can see. That their opposition could bring a point of clarification or test an element of a plan or idea. That rather than undermining their success, they are crucial to it.

There is one prerequisite to this mindset. You must be able to release your grasp on certainty and be prepared to genuinely explore the possibility that an idea needs to be modified, changed or discarded. It may not do, but without genuinely adopting this mindset, it will never be possible to fully demonstrate the value of healthy opposition.

Leaders that fall into the trap of concern about appearing fallible or those who hold a deep desire to move with pace will often shut down opposition, consciously or unconsciously, preventing vital communication from taking place.

Skilful opposers will, in a culture where opposition is not encouraged, or worse still punished, retreat. Their greatest asset to a team will be driven out of view; sometimes relegated to coffee machine conversations or, in some instances, out of the workplace all together.

Leaders who allow this to happen face significant risks. Flaws or difficulties that could easily have been corrected are not identified, surfaced or explored. Teams without skillful overt opposition have experienced staff walkouts, whistleblowing fiascos, a failure to complete projects crucial to their success, not to mention the inevitability of hurtling blindly towards damaging plans. In fact a lack of opposition in systems is behind some of the most widely publicised organisational disasters of the last decade.

So great leaders aren’t just ‘dealing with’ opposition in their teams by softly manipulating it out of their day. They are actively soliciting it…because, without it, a part of the picture is missing. And when healthy opposition has finally been cultivated, they remain in genuine curiosity of what lies behind it – because they realise someone may just, in that moment, be helping them remove a trip wire that they can’t yet see themselves…

Is opposition present in your team? If it is, how is it received? If it is not, how might you engender it?

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