Here is the fifth story from my paperback ’50 Cautionary Tales for Mangers’. 

 

Robin was an entrepreneur with all the usual characteristics; infectious curiosity, enthusiasm and the ability to produce a vast number of unconventional ideas.  He had the habit of leaning back in his chair, gazing up at the ceiling with both hands clasped behind his head and releasing a steady stream of lateral thoughts.  Edward de Bono would have been proud of him!

Inevitably, many of his ideas were entirely speculative but members of his management team developed an alarming tendency to hang on to his every word and assume he was serious (that the ideas were vertical, not lateral).  This meant that time and energy was wasted working on ideas that Robin never intended to be taken seriously (and, indeed, had invariably forgotten!).

Robin became increasingly disappointed with his colleagues.  He complained that he was surrounded by sycophants who never challenged any of his suggestions.  He became so desperate that he hired a consultant as a sort of mentor with a specific brief to disagree with him!  Whilst sympathising with his plight, the consultant had misgivings about this role but agreed to try it for an experimental three-month period.

There was, however, a serious problem.  As the consultant sat in on Robin’s board meetings, he would listen to him spinning off his ideas and think to himself, ‘He’s absolutely right’ and ‘That’s a good idea’ and, ‘Wow, this man is amazing’.  In short, the consultant would succumb to sycophantic thoughts – hardly conducive to producing the challenging behaviour that Robin expected of him. Invariably, whilst the consultant was in the grip of positive thoughts, Robin would look pointedly at him and invite his opinion.  This was the trigger for the consultant to put forward counter-arguments and play devil’s advocate. 

Now, it is very difficult to dispute with someone when you are in wholehearted agreement.  Of course, the consultant did his best but he knew that his faked arguments were feeble and half-hearted.  They were easily demolished, not only by Robin, but also by members of his team, who clearly relished the extra opportunities provided to demonstrate their support for Robin.

After the three-month trial, Robin and the consultant met to review progress. Prior to this meeting the consultant had come to the conclusion that he should admit defeat and jump before he was pushed.  The consultant told Robin that he had noticed his contrived disagreements were counterproductive; if anything they were increasing sycophantic behaviour. He therefore suggested that the experiment be brought to an end.

Robin said he was delighted with the consultant’s help and wished to continue the relationship.  However, the consultant dug his heels in and refused to continue.  Eventually, they agreed to differ and go their separate ways.

This was the first and only time that the consultant succeeded in disagreeing with Robin.

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