Fence-Sitting As A Virtue

Your objective advisors are your undecided advisors      

Out of the Tube

What We Want
Decision makers value advisors who bring an independent point of view and want to hear their opinions, but therein lies a great paradox: once the advisor forms their opinion, their objectivity is instantly and permanently diminished.

One reason is readily apparent: Having voice my professional advice to the boss, I want to appear competent. Revising that advice, even in the face of new contradictory evidence, is typically deemed weakness. Perhaps your most seasoned advisor are secure enough to resist this but there is an even more powerful dynamic against which even the most confident advisor is bound – human nature and neuroscience.

Even if I have not put my reputation on the line by disclosing an opinion to my boss, merely reaching a conclusion changes how my mind processes all new information. Our minds unconsciously loathe any new information that challenges our current views so our minds attempt to resolve the conflict with a shortcut by asking: Do I have to accept this new information or can I…
• Reinterpret its implications more favorably, and/or
• Discredit its source as unreliable

The Righteous MindJonathan Haidt’s book “The Righteous Mind” provides a deeply discouraging analysis of how resilient opinions are in the face of contradictory evidence. While Haidt writes in the context of morality and politics, our professional self-image is similarly precious that we instinctively protect by zealously preserve our prior conclusions.

What We Need
If an executive wants their advisors’ objectivity maintained throughout due diligence and deliberations they need to ensure at least some of those advisors are slow to reach their conclusions. Granted, some avoid disclosing their opinions because they are afraid of being wrong. Those are not the advisors I am referring to because if they privately reached a conclusion their objectivity is still compromised (albeit not to the same extent of a publicly stated position).

An executive is best served by the subset of advisors who genuinely delay conclusions as long as possible. This come through either an innate or an intentionally developed trait of skepticism that resists conclusions until either all the information is in or timing demands a decision be made.

The decision maker can certainly call upon their advisors to take a position but this is best left until the last possible moment – before the final decision is due and not before because, just as we can’t put toothpaste back in the tube, your advisors cannot undo their conclusion and restore their prior objectivity.

© Dave Wittenberg

P.S. Try this wrapping your mind around this one: “Don’t do what you can’t undo, until you’ve considered what you can’t do once you’ve done it.” ― Robin Hobb, Assassin’s Apprentice