Effective Group Contributions: An Interview with Cass Sunstein

February 4, 2015

effective group contributions

Cass Sunstein is a U.S. Legal Scholar and served as administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Obama administration. He is currently the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard Law School. He is the coauthor of Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter, which is published by Harvard Business Review Press. Cass recently sat down with AMA in an exclusive interview. This post is an adaptation of that interview.

AMA: Now, we always hear about the mistake of leaders surrounding themselves with yes men. I mean, pick up a Dilbert cartoon, right? However, the flip side is the risk to your career. When you’re an individual contributor, and you’re playing the role of devil’s advocate, and you’re sort of picking out all the details and all the challenges and all the issues, do you have any advice for navigating the relationship with your boss, when you find yourself in the role of a devil’s advocate, other than wearing a T-shirt that actually says “Devil’s Advocate” on it?

CS: Well, one good thing to do if you’re going to disagree with someone in a position of authority, especially authority over you, is to have some sort of gesture at the beginning that is going to soften the interaction. So, in both the private and public sector, there’s a kind of clichéd line that is familiar to many, which is “Just so you know.” And that, that’s a little bit of a bow of deference.

AMA: It’s a disclosure.

CS: It’s a “just so you know,” and then what follows, that is often going to raise a problem for what the leader tends to think. Of course, a lot depends on the relationship that develops over time between supervisors or bosses and employees, and it’s mostly the boss’s job to make sure that the employee feels authorized to suggest the boss is going in the wrong direction. But the employee often can, through techniques of deference, not of, you know, cowardice or hiding, but techniques of acknowledging that the boss is the boss. They can say “there’s another perspective,” or “here’s a different view.” So there are verbal formulations that can soften the potentially unpleasant encounter.

AMA: Here at AMA, we take pride in our noble cause, which is to help new managers, middle managers, and aspiring leaders become better at their jobs, and help them with their capabilities and their skills. What type of advice can you give, or how would you encourage these new managers and leaders to foster creativity and critical thinking, both in group meetings and in group situations?

CS: Well, I think the first thing is to give everyone clarity that what it means to be a team player is not to make everyone smile and happy and feel that this was a good day – though that can be important – but is instead to add information to the group. So a good team player is not someone who everyone smiles when they think about; a good team player is someone who makes the performance better. And to say that explicitly can be really helpful.

I think it’s also good for a manager, especially when there’s a hard decision being made that a number of people are involved in, to assign roles, to say that “Your job is to focus on this, your job is to focus on that,” and to a third person, “Your focus is elsewhere.” And if you assign roles, it can be formal or it can be just through conversation, then people feel freer to say the things that they think, and say it to mean it, that diverse opinions are welcome. That can be a big morale builder, but it also can be a really important safeguard against mistakes in the workplace.

To hear more exclusive interviews with business leaders, check out AMA’s Edgewise Podcasts.

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