Dear Leaders

A weekly letter with actionable leadership ideas.

Strawmanning Our Brilliance

By Hamza Shayk

Dear Leaders,

Last week, I wrote about how the Steelman technique is useful in conflict resolution, decision-making, and building consensus.

This note is about situations in which Strawmanning is essential to, well, conflict resolution, decision-making, and building consensus. It’s also highly useful in keeping our egos in check, bulletproofing the strategic planning process, and simplifying complex ideas.

Quick definitions:

Strawman: a technique used to simplify an opponent’s argument.

Steelman: amplifying an opponent’s argument to its most formidable form.

Yes, I strawmanned the strawman definition above.

It’s not only used to simplify an opponent’s viewpoints but the simplification is usually done to the point of complete distortion of the opponent’s stance. Like a figure made of straw that’s easy to knock down, more often than not, this technique is used to make the other’s argument sound as dumb as possible to gain an edge – and a so-called win.

That’s why it has a bad reputation.

Examples?

Watch any political debate. We’ve mastered the art of distorting the other parties’ narratives, causing division and hatred among the population while instilling fear and loss of trust in our political system and institutions.

Or just read the news. Facts are distorted to the point of complete fabrication to further the news outlet’s own agenda. The last six times our weather experts in NYC predicted “severe thunderstorms”, half resulted in a drizzle and the other half in sunshine. The severe thunderstorm prediction did stir up the intended fear in the public. It also continues to result in the erosion of trust in the weather channel.

And that’s exactly it! We can use the strawman concept unethically to further our own agendas – no one wins – or we can use it ethically to:

Resolve conflict, especially between a senior executive and a subordinate. If a senior executive has a strong personality – or a strong opinion on a given matter – and is challenged, conflict is bound to arise. If an organization is in a habit of strawmanning opinions and ideas with the goal of better outcomes, it’ll lead to fewer conflicts, to begin with, and will resolve existing conflicts much quicker without offending anyone.

Make better decisions. Doing the above consistently will naturally lead to higher-quality decisions consistently.

Build consensus. When everyone knows that your organization as a whole is set up to find the best possible solution through open and transparent dialogue, trust builds. That leads to taking each other at face value and expediting of decisions as a group. Consensus, decisions, results, keep moving forward.

Ego check. Strawmanning your own position is an exercise in humility and self-awareness, precursors to changing for the better (progress).

Improve strategic planning by identifying weaknesses and gaps and proactively addressing them before implementation, lots of possible pitfalls are neutralized beforehand.

Simplify complex ideas into their most basic and digestible form, leading to increased comprehension and well-informed decision-making. Most innovative companies are always on the lookout to simplify the complexity of their product or service to improve user experience.

 

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

-Einstein

 

I mainly use steelmanning to strengthen people’s arguments for a higher quality discourse and strawmanning to find holes in ideas and plans, a good way of stress-testing and further strengthening them.

Of course, both concepts can also be misused to undermine others by operating in bad faith.

That’s a character issue and no argumentation technique can fix that.

I’ll discuss more of that in my next week’s letter, “Character and Leadership.

Until then,

Onward!

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