They are incredibly rare, but incredibly valuable. The “black hat” friend is the one who provides essential, unfiltered feedback at exactly the right time.
This article is taken from a chapter of 'One More Small Step' - a book in which many action recommendations ask you to stop and reflect on your own behaviour; to consider how those behaviours impacted on others or how they could have been interpreted by others.
These are extremely difficult things to do with any credible objectivity because we all have blind spots that limit our self-perception.
A “black hat” friend doesn’t usually have the same blind spots and, if given your permission, can deliver a less subjective interpretation of the impact of your behaviours.
Although the “black hat” expression is said to have originated in 1950s cowboy movies, with good guys and bad guys wearing white and black hats respectively, it was Dr Edward de Bono’s book, 'Six Thinking Hats' (1985) that popularised the concept in the corporate world.
De Bono’s black hat wasn’t a reckless doomsayer. This role was required to be logically negative; someone who could outline the negative aspects of a decision or situation using evidence or logic.
This is the characteristic you need from your “black hat” friend.
The person is someone who can resist the temptation to soften the blow, or to use euphemisms to hide the real message that needs to be conveyed.
It is someone who can gather evidence and share that evidence directly.
Whilst emphasising the “black hattedness” of this person, don’t forget the element of friendship. A friend in this context is someone who cares about you and their intent is to help you develop, not crush you under the weight of relentless criticism.
Ultimately, this friend is there to help you get better as a leader.
One more small step in the next 24 hours
Think of work colleagues you consider to be friends and who you believe have your best interests at heart.
Now narrow the list to one person who has the strength, self-confidence and insight to take on this black hat role.
Ask them if they will take on this role. Reassure them that you want direct feedback and that your relationship will not be damaged if that feedback is particularly robust.
When asked, most people will be naturally reticent to take on the role, so introduce them slowly to the task by asking them to assume the black hat position on one or two aspects of your behaviour rather than everything.
Over time, as they recognise your openness to feedback, they will be willing to broaden the scope of the role.
What impact could this action have on your leadership success?
How likely is it you could implement this action successfully?