5 Strategies For Working With Black Hats

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cartoon melodrama villain wearing black stovepipe hat with handlebar moustache

The Black Hats – we’ve all dealt with them at some point (and maybe we’ve been them at some point!).

The naysayers, the critics, the ‘yes-buts’ and the ‘it won’t work because-s…’

The term ‘Black Hats’ originates from Edward de Bono’s ‘Six Thinking Hats’, which is a framework and system of  thinking that is based on the idea we can consciously choose our mode of thought, whatever our natural tendency, and that the quality of thinking and decision making can be improved by utilising a range of thinking modes.

This approach uses six different coloured hats as a metaphor for certain modes of thinking:

pic of six hats, of the different colours

Image credit

  • Blue Hat – the hat of focus; ‘meta’ hat, used to manage the thinking process; each thinking session should begin and end with Blue Hat
  • White Hat – the hat of information; what information/date/facts are known, or needed, how to get this information
  • Red Hat – the hat of emotions; feelings, hunches or intuition, articulated without needing justification
  • Yellow Hat – the hat of optimism; identifying the values and benefits, what could be gained, why something could work
  • Black Hat – the hat of judgment; identifying possible weaknesses/drawbacks, critical, caution, why something may not work
  • Green Hat – the hat of creativity; possibilities, alternatives, new ideas; it works to find ways to overcome concerns identified by the black hat

‘Black hat’ thinking is not necessarily negative, as it plays an important (and positive) role in assessing thinking, applies a check on thinking from the green and yellow hat modes, and anticipates potential problems and pitfalls. In fact de Bono himself sees the ‘black hat’ as the most valuable and most used hat – used to avoid danger, mistakes, excess and nonsenses.

An imaginary conversation within a team from NASA during the 1960s using Six Thinking Hat modes might have unfolded as:

‘Just think how incredible it would be to land a man on the moon, and bring him safely home! (red)

‘What do we know about how to get a man on the moon? What do we need to know that we already don’t? (white)

‘What kinds of technologies developed for space travel could also benefit humanity on earth?’ (yellow)

‘Why stop at the moon? We could go to Mars!’ (green)

‘What could go wrong? There are a million things that could cause a disaster with this kind of project.’ (black)

‘Have we covered off on everything we need to discuss?  (blue)

This is just a simple example – the interaction would not have happened in exactly that order, as people shift in and out of modes at different points of discussion.

We are all ‘black hats’ at certain times or in particular contexts, especially those which involve risk and the unknown.

However, when black hat thinking becomes a personal trait, when black hats are people rather than modes of thinking people use, it can become problematic.

Individuals who are Black Hats seem to always have their ‘black hats’ on, or have them on the majority of the time. Sometimes, their very identity or ego is bound up in their role of being ‘the critic’. If they never change their hat, or are not challenged to consciously put on another hat, they can:

  • stifle new ideas before they get started, short-circuiting what could be a potentially excellent initiative
  • keep attention and focus on avoiding ‘problems’ rather than looking for innovative ways to address challenges
  • drain the energy out of others around them, affecting group morale

In a worst-case scenario, this dynamic can become so restrictive and maddening that it causes people to leave the group or organisation.

cartoon with text 'Great ideas alter the power balance in relationships. That's why great ideas are initially resisted' - with small cartoon man at bottom saying 'yes, but...'

Here are five strategies for ensuring Black Hats do not dominate the energy of your organisation or work:

1.       Acknowledge Their Contribution

Black Hats bring a critical and necessary dimension to any discussion or decision making process. They are often are genuinely worried about a proposed course of action, and attempting to talk them out of their position will likely cause them to dig their heels in to defend it. Specifically acknowledging their concerns, the positive attributes they bring to the exchange, and welcoming their contribution will demonstrate that their views have been heard.

2.      Encourage Them To Try On Another Hat

Even if you never mention the Six Thinking Hats, or ask someone to put on a Yellow or Green Hat, you can say: ‘…we’ve now heard all the reasons why it could create a problem or isn’t a good idea. Can you offer three potential benefits, or three alternatives to the proposal?’

If it helps, actually have different coloured hats on hand – as someone who has worn purple jester’s glasses and orange-tinted glasses during a workshop exercise to ‘see’ things differently, I can say it is surprising how such a small physical shift actually can help bring a new perspective!

my border collie Maggie wearing the purple jester glasses

Maggie says: ‘I can’t see any difference in colour?’

3.      Humour Them

By their nature, Black Hats tend to be cautious and concerned with risk – that is, they take a defensive position. If there is a way you can bring humour into the exchange (see: ‘The Physiology of Comedy in Communication’) – perhaps an in-joke, or finding some kind of professional or personal common ground – it sets off a different mix of brain chemicals which can break the tension, and make people more receptive than when their ‘fight or flight’ defences are up as they seek to argue their position on an intellectual level.

4.      Ask Strategic Questions

Frame questions differently by using Strategic Questioning, which shifts a conversation from judgment and defensiveness, and seeks to call forth the new and how things could be – a good forward-motion question is ‘what would it take to (achieve desired outcome)?’ It is very easy to criticise what is; a lot harder to be constructive about what could be. Challenge them.

5.     Protect Yourself

If nothing you try seems to work, or if you’re making progress with changing the dynamic but it feels like a slog, do whatever you need to to keep your own motivation intact. Minimise contact and interaction with Black Hats if possible, especially if exchanges have become personal – practice non-attachment, become ‘the witness’ to your exchanges with them, or even visualise yourself within a protective shield of white light, which repels the slings and arrows of outrageous Black-Hattery. And don’t focus on the one person or few negative people who are making life difficult – think of all the others you are working with, and those who do appreciate and encourage your efforts.

While the ‘positive’ Black Hat state can help minimise risk, exercise caution and improve ideas, too much ‘negative’ Black Hat energy – cynicism, fault-finding and turning professional differences into personal issues – is corrosive and counterproductive, and anyone engaging in it needs to be pulled up on it.

But if you can be aware of Black Hat personalities in your sphere, encourage their ‘positive’ Black Hat state contributions, and know how to neutralise their ‘negative’ state behaviour, you will cultivate a valuable asset.

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