John’s Postulate #16 – Why everyone argues about stuff that matters least

People’s willingness to share and discuss their opinions on an issue is inversely proportional to the importance of the issue.

Take note of how many times you encounter this in your interactions with other people tomorrow, especially in business environments.

A classic example of this is the weekly status meeting.  A few years ago I was in one where we had two new items on the agenda to discuss – a new marketing newsletter and how to handle one of our largest clients who was demanding a refund and threatening legal action.

The first item up was the marketing newsletter.  Within minutes, the conversation had grown into a full blown debate of the merits of putting the full content of the newsletter in the email versus with links to the web, whether to include images or not and a million other nuances.  The VP of Sales was arguing vehemently for sending out a newsletter once a month while the Director of QA felt strongly that twice a month was ideal.

Next was the client legal issue, the CEO brought up his initial thoughts on the matter and then – nothing. Silence.  No one had an opinion, no one disagreed, no one wanted to debate or even pontificate.  Despite the fact that there was a substantial amount of revenue at stake, not to mention the potential damage to our reputation, no one wanted to even explore another option.

I believe the vast discrepancy between the level of interest in debating these topics all rests on a single tenant – “if my opinion is accepted, how much damage could it do if i am wrong?”

In the case of the marketing newsletter, assuming the company did not begin emailing daily videos of the CEO in a Nazi uniform talking about his love for Adolf Hitler, the final decision was extremely unlikely to have a material impact on the company’s business or the company’s perception of the individual person whose suggestion was accepted.  Even if every two weeks is the ideal timeframe for a newsletter, no one is going to think less of the VP of Sales for settling on once a month, after all – he’s paid to sell not to do marketing.

Contrast this with the touchy client situation where if the VP of Sales takes a hard line and says “they paid us that money, let them try to sue us” and it backfires.  It will have a negative impact on both the company and the VP of Sales as he is supposed to know the clients better than anyone.  Whereas simply agreeing with the initial suggestion of the CEO, regardless of personal opinion guarantees that no matter what happens, it’s no one but the CEO’s fault so there is no personal risk.

So the next time you find yourself in a room full of arguing coworkers, take a step back and evaluate what they’re actually arguing about because odds are if everyone is interested in debating, the issue at hand is far from critical.

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