Opinionists and silent naysayers, how to avoid these two great evils of companies?

The opinionist speaks without knowing and delays decisions that seemed already made. The silent naysayer never opposes, and later becomes defensive: “I never agreed with this decision”. How to avoid these two specimens of corporate life?

Management meeting. An important decision is about to be made. Suddenly, someone, whose role in the room is not clear, issues an opinion: “Are we sure this path is best? I’m not that certain”. His words introduce doubts in what seemed to be a decision already made.

In the same room, one of the directors has not said a word throughout the entire meeting. He does not seem very convinced. I’m glad he hasn’t objected, but if we move forward with the decision, what will his level of commitment to the implementation be? Will he support it or be the first to say: “I never agreed”?

Organizations have antibodies against the fast approval of projects. These are mechanisms that corporate bureaucrats use to delay things or prevent decisions that are not in their favor from being implemented.

Opinionists: doctors of opinion and point of view professionals, they believe they can express their opinion even when nobody has asked them for it. Their interventions wreak havoc on the progress of projects. In general, they are respected people in some field, but believe this expertise authorizes them to also give their opinion about everything else. Do they have the formal authority to do so?

Silent naysayers: at the opposite pole of opinionists are those who exercise a silent opposition. They do not speak, but do not move forward either. They are always seen passive in meetings. They do not support or question. No one knows what they think. In general, they do not want to bear the political cost of opposing. Hence, they wait for others to speak first, or let the issue ride, knowing they are not going to execute what is decided in the room anyway.

Both profiles are equally harmful. Both create delays, divert resources and introduce confusion into project approval processes. And, what’s worse, many times these profiles are generated by the same organizations.

How we generate them

In general, the opinionist is not to blame. They give their opinion because they were invited to the meeting and are given the floor. These are the most frequent sources that generate opinionists:

Vague invitations: have you ever been in a meeting without knowing why you were there? Or what was the contribution expected of you? We have many meetings, too many, and our participation in them must be very well evaluated and chosen to maximize our contribution. Above all, to be able to participate in meetings that really add value and in which our contribution is relevant. The maximum value that can be obtained from the time applied to a meeting occurs when we use it to make decisions. In that case, all those who participate must fulfill some role: provide input, warn about potential risks, evaluate the feasibility of an implementation, propose alternatives. No one who does not have a clear role to play should enter the room. No one.

Forwarded invitations: we receive an invitation to a meeting. But, since we cannot attend, we forward it because we think it would be good for someone else to participate or to replace us. Perhaps, our role and capacity in the decision to be made was significant, but this does not apply to the person replacing us. When the surrogate is asked for their opinion, it will create a need for consultation and delay the decision. If we are invited to a meeting, we have only three alternatives: 1) to attend; 2) delegate with full power of decision to another; 3) not to go and give up having a voice and a vote in the decision. Not going and also not agreeing with the decision is not an option.

Inviting to coach or learn: sometimes, young professionals or high potentials are invited to meetings to learn and develop. This may be so. But what is the cost of adding a person to a key moment of decision? Their very participation can hinder a critical process for the company. Decision meetings should have few participants. There are many magic numbers regarding the optimal number of participants (five, seven, nine) but certainly less than ten. More than that, it generates delays, hinders, and does not facilitate the decision process. Without a doubt, it is not the best time to train a young professional.

E-mails copied without explanation: it is the digital version of the vague invitation to meetings. If we are copied in a chain of e-mails, we may ask ourselves: “If I am carbon copied and I don’t answer, do I approve the content? What if I’m blind copied? And if I was forwarded?”. Most frequently, we end up reading those long chains and giving our opinion on issues where we can contribute very little.

FYI (For Your Information): the acronym FYI is the most powerful weapon for generating opinionists. Not only does it force you to read all mail without knowing why, but it is also unclear if a specific action is required. And what happens if we do not answer? Are we committing to something? FYI triggers many ambiguities, generates doubts about roles and false expectations. It is best to avoid it.

While the mistake with opinionists is to give them room to express their opinion where they should not have any, with silent naysayers, the problem is the opposite: we do not expose them or force them out of their lair.

The base assumption, clearly fallacious, is if the person did not openly oppose, they committed to support. Who said that silence implies consent? It does not work like that in decision making. Silence is not approval, much less commitment. In general, silence responds to the fact that the person considered that the cost of opposing was greater than that of committing.

Assuming that raising one’s hand is worth the same as not doing so is false. Silent naysayers generally prefer to wait and see when to speak, or wait for someone else to speak first, or never speak at all. Anyway, it will not be done.

Not demanding an express commitment is a serious mistake when seeking an agreement. If we want agreements that are respected, we must dedicate the time in the meeting to express these agreements and seek explicit validation.

How to avoid opinionists and silent naysayers

In order to avoid opinionists and silent naysayers, it is possible to follow a series of steps that ensure that the points of view of the people who can add value to decisions are expressed in time.

  1. Identify your most important decisions. Focus only on the key decisions that impact your objectives. Do not waste time.
  2. Understand what decisions need to be made at each meeting. Minimize dead-end meetings and focus on critical decisions.
  3. Define clear roles for each decision. At least who will participate and who will not. To those who do not participate, explain why not. With those who do participate, explain how.
  4. Only invite people who have a role. Don’t allow invitation peddling. Invitations are not transferable nor operate as bearer tickets.
  5. Get them to talk and commit at the meeting. Dedicate time in the agenda to validate agreements and do it expressly. This is the key.

Following these steps does not guarantee success, but it will significantly reduce these evils, achieving more agile and reliable decision processes. A decision process without opinionists and without silent naysayers will give your business faster response times, it will allow you to sleep peacefully since there will be no surprises or rework in the execution and you will undoubtedly be able to impact the key business objectives with sustained agreements.

Gastón Francese
Partner at Tandem.

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