How to Get Honest Opinions from Your Team

A simple technique can uncover the truth

The Queen lives in a world of fresh paint and furniture polish. Everywhere she travels, people adjust their lives to accommodate her every need.

Life as a new manager can feel similar. After getting promoted, your jokes become funnier, while your ideas are nuggets of pure wisdom from the gods. It’s fun at first, but soon you hanker to see past the sycophancy and discover what people really think.

Why You Need to Know

If you cannot access the real opinions of your team, you’re doomed to half-baked ideas that haven’t benefited from rigorous debate. You can try to play Devil’s Advocate with your own ideas, of course. But, the same brain that concocted an idea is not the best tool for dissecting it. We need other perspectives for that.

A lack of debate can also lead to fewer options to consider. There is always more than two options available for any problem, even though it doesn’t feel that way. Yet, if the boss proposes a solution, it’s easy for a team to run with it without iterating and finding a third or fourth approach.

Since adopting a senior role, I’ve been struggling to unearth my team’s real opinions. Along the way I’ve learnt to withhold my thoughts until others have spoken (although I’m not perfect at this). I also caveat my views with a weighting, so my team knows what’s a mild suggestion versus very strong opinion. But one method has stood out above the others: the good hat, bad hat technique.

Assigning Hats

My mentor explained the idea to me, and it’s very simple. In any argument, you can assign someone to wear the good hat or the bad hat. When wearing the good hat, the person must advocate for the idea under discussion, regardless of their true feelings. But more importantly, when wearing the bad hat, the person needs to find fault with the idea presented. Even if the boss came up with it.

The first time I tried this was during a weekly staff meeting. We discussed an important topic for a few minutes, and I sat back listening to the conversation. As we approached a conclusion, I stepped in to synthesise what I’d heard and propose a way forward. There was a murmur of agreement, but something didn’t feel right. It was like that moment in a war film where the characters worry it’s gone too quiet. So I outlined the good hat, bad hat principle and assigned the bad hat to my most loyal team member, Stuart. What happened next was magical.

Without skipping a beat, Stuart tore the idea to pieces. Emboldened by his invisible bad hat, he highlighted several flaws with my idea and proposed an approach that would avoid them. The rest of the team perked up at this, and I could sense a fruitful discussion was imminent. I thanked Stuart and re-assigned the bad hat to Helen. After a moment of reflection, she admitted she agreed with Stuart’s points and highlighted a different problem with my idea. At this stage, the team was unleashed, the gloves were off, and a superior solution emerged.

I couldn’t believe how much psychological safety the bad hat had granted Stuart and Helen. It turns out most people are wearing the good hat by default. But when you assign them the bad hat, they feel comfortable showing their negative side. The hat becomes the excuse to release a stream of criticism that is otherwise held in check. Nobody wants to seem like they’re not a team player.

Bang for Buck

The bad hat concept caught on quickly in my team. In the following team meeting, someone jokingly pulled on a black baseball cap and criticised an idea the group was refining. Once again, the criticism was fair, and help shaped a better outcome. And it was Stuart, of all people. Apparently, he has a lot of excellent critical thoughts that he had been keeping to himself until now.

Soon, the bad hat was embedded in our everyday lingo. I heard people referring to it in mid-conversation, with phrases beginning “With my bad hat on, ….”. Nowadays, I rarely assign it to anyone. I don’t need to. The concept has legitimised rigorous debate and our decisions have benefited from this.

In terms of bang for buck, the good hat, bad hat concept has delivered oversized returns. Metaphorical hats are cheap, while better decisions and team confidence is priceless.

(Names were changed in the above text)