It’s normal to be stressed when we don’t get our way. After all, frustration—being prevented from reaching our goals—is one of the leading causes of stress, along with pressure, conflict and change. Also, because resources in organizations are limited, we need to lobby, argue, and engage in conflict to get our way. If you’re still employed, it’s probably because you’re successful at getting your way, or you’re doing a job that a machine or an artificial intelligence can’t do, yet. Scary, isn’t it?
Most leaders listen to the expertise of others to make decisions. But how do leaders make the best decision when the experts disagree with each other? When experts disagree, it doesn’t mean that their expert opinions are equally right, or that there can’t be one better answer because one answer must be just as good as the other. Here, leaders know there is one better answer because actions matter. Action based on one expert opinion will turn out better for the organization than action based on another.
leaders encourage conflict and competition
When experts disagree with each other, leaders encourage conflict and competition. Leaders know the value of contrasting different decision-making models. They know that in choosing a particular model, they are choosing what data to include and what to leave out. That’s why it’s the decision making process that usually determines the outcome, not the facts. Also, leaders know the value of testing competing solutions. Watching two or more approaches grind through a complex problem is a sure way to separate the effective from the flop.
some leaders can confidently draw on their own experience
In the end, leaders have to rely on their own expertise. The idea that you need little technical expertise to be a good leader falls apart when the experts disagree. If experts never agree with each other, some leaders can confidently draw on their own experience to make a decision in the midst of uncertainty. Organizations without leaders who have adequate experience often slide into endless analysis paralysis. They forever aim at the target, but never pull the trigger.
Leaders do all these things because they understand how experts behave. Experts have strongly-held opinions in a narrow area. Experts are often poorly informed about expertise that they consider irrelevant to their own and are biased against it. To maintain their status and livelihood as an expert, they must argue against the opinions of others; if they lose those arguments, then the other becomes the expert. Competition among experts is fierce.
For example, let’s imagine deciding how to spend money to improve security at a nuclear power station. Let’s also imagine that this same nuclear power station has been losing money and needs to reduce its workforce. The civil engineering team has done a study that shows that the necessary security improvement can be achieved by improving physical security: fences, barricades, etc. However, the IT team has done a study that shows, for the same amount of money, the same improvement in security can be realized through electronic surveillance. Furthermore, each team can show why their proposal is better than the competing proposal. And, what if the team selected to implement their proposal will not be impacted by the workforce reduction? These experts will likely do everything they can to get their way.
In this example, the decision will have to be made by leaders who value conflict and competition in their workforce, and who know enough about the security problem to protect the organization from endless analysis. It might not be fun, but the work will get done.