Hire People Who Disagree with You (HBR)

Emma Sky is a British pacificist dedicated to getting the U.S. out of Iraq. In 2007 she also became a key aide to General Ray Ordierno, the operational commander of U.S. forces. “People always thought we were funny,” she tells Thomas Ricks in his book, The Gamble, “this huge man (Ordierno is 6’5) and this tiny British woman who went everywhere with him.” Sky represented a civilian sensibility and voiced oppositional views that she felt senior officers needed to hear. Ordierno once referred to Sky has “my insurgent.”

Credit Ordierno, as Ricks does, for realizing that he needed someone who could be “his opposite” (Sky’s words). In this instance, Ordierno was following the example of his boss, General David Petraeus, who surrounded himself with an assortment of military and civilian aides. This “brain trust,” as Ricks calls it, would provide him with the different perspectives so vital to running a counter-insurgency operation.

Leaders who solicit opinions from people who disagree with them are smart enough to realize that they do not have all the answers. Such leaders also must make it safe for others to disagree; otherwise the exercise is moot. Here are some things to consider when hiring for difference.

Look for character. From a leadership position, character is the willingness to do what is right for the team. Every team needs people who will stand up for their ideas. That requires backbone. Integrity and virtue are also essential, but what matters is not what you are, it is what you do . Character is leadership put to good purpose.

Look for strength of ideas. It is not enough to disagree; executives need alternate viewpoints that are based on facts as well as reason. Good ideas that are contrary to the boss’s ideas must be carefully thought-out, supported by data, and argued from a viewpoint of doing what is best for stakeholders.

Look for ambition. When bringing on someone who disagrees with you, or at least is not afraid to do so, make sure they have an ambition to move up in the organization. They aren’t just contrarian; they want to make a positive difference, and they’re in it for the long haul.

Look at their track record. I have yet to see a recruitment advertisement that says, “Wanted: People to Disagree with Boss.” So look for managers who have shepherded projects to positive ends when the odds were against them. For example, if they achieved something in the face of new competition, diminished resources, or even organizational change, these are indicators of an ability to think and act for themselves.

Hiring someone who is opposed to your ideas is not the same as hiring someone who is opposed to you. The former is a good thing; the latter is a threat. The latter will disrupt the team in order to achieve his personal ambitions at your expense. Such a person will cause more grief than glory — so keep him on a short leash or ask him to find work elsewhere. In any organization, the designated leader must have the final say in strategic decisions, otherwise the organization loses focus and direction.

Having a strong oppositional voice is the mark of good leadership. Rather than a sign of weakness, it demonstrates force of character and the ability to think and act strategically. More importantly, oppositional views can clarify the leader’s own thinking, sometimes changing his mind, other times sharpening a course of action.

And while ultimately, the leader still has to make the final call, encouraging others to voice opposing views enables the organization to be more adaptable and more agile — and will help you make better decisions as a leader.

First posted on HBR.org 7/27/2009