Leadership in Action – The Idiot Response

Leadership in Action – The Idiot Response


While you want your team to collaborate and leverage each other’s ideas and efforts, more often than not, one or two members of your team get caught up in the Idiot Response. The Idiot Response is more common than you might think. It occurs in a team where two or more individuals have dif­ferent assumptions on which tactic is appropriate. Each individual tends to focus on the faults of the other person, instead of the merits of their own tactic.

For example, when trying to determine the strategic direction of the team, you may have two individuals who have done their homework, and spent hours in research and analysis. They come to the meeting and Person #1 wants to travel north, while Person #2 wants to travel south. The typical response is to assume the other person is an idiot for wanting to go in that direction. The goal (for both individuals) becomes proving the assumption that the other person is an idiot, so they focus on finding fault in the other person and their idea.

When someone is con­vinced that another person is wrong, he or she will not listen actively to the idea being presented. In fact, he or she actively will listen for faults in the other person’s logic, working to get other team members to support themselves by tearing down the other point of view. At the end of the meeting, the team votes 4-3 to go north, not south. The team members leave with three people convinced the team is making a mistake. Those three people will not be committed to the initiative. The rest of the organization now sees your team as lacking alignment, and you end up having a difficult time implementing any strategy.

On an extraordinary team, where active listening takes place, the two individuals realize if one of them wants to go north, while the other wants to go south, they are not starting from the same set of assumptions. Instead of defending their own position, or attacking the opposing view, they use active listening and support to try to understand the underlying assumptions that led to the decision.

They might realize that both are trying to get to Miami. However, one is coming from Toronto, and the other is coming from Bogotá. So, the discussion then is focused on whether or not we are starting in Toronto or Bogotá. Through that discussion, they both realize that they are actually starting from Los Angeles. At the end of this discussion, the direction to travel (east) becomes obvious, and there is stronger commitment to the team decision. The rest of the organization now sees your team aligned, and you are able to implement the strategy with ease.

The extraordinary gains that teams make when they work effectively comes as a result of their ability to eliminate erroneous assumptions. The team accomplishes this by first listening to each team member’s assumptions about the problem, and sup­porting individuals as they contribute their point of view. This way, they differ on the merits of the ideas. The Idiot Response gets in the way of this type of extraordinary teamwork. Nurture Growth in your team to effectively listen and challenge assumptions behind the idea, not the person presenting it.