Advice for Managers: Do you Make it Easy for People to Disagree with You?

This Friday I was telling a story about an experience I had in a meeting many years ago. I was new to these meetings; I had just been promoted to a new position. A serious decision was being made and as I listened to the discussion it became clear to me that one important aspect of the decision was not going to be discussed. I knew this was not a trivial issue but I also realized it probably fell in the category of "elephant in the room people had probably long decided not to talk about." At the time I weighed two considerations:

  • I don't think we can make the best decision if we don't discuss this issue. In fact, it is wrong not to discuss it.
  • As the new person at the table, suspecting what I do about the past care and feeding of elephants, if I mention this at my first meeting I risk being branded as a troublemaker and perhaps even losing my seat at the table.

And so I said nothing. It has always troubled me I said nothing.

As I told this story one insightful young man asked me:

"Could the leader of the meeting have done something to make you feel comfortable enough to ask the question?"

As a leader, particularly during challenging, change-infested times like these, it's your responsibility, your obligation to ensure people feel comfortable in saying what they really think about the decisions you want to make and the opinions you have. I know this runs counter to the "strong personality as leader" archetype many of us carry around in our heads, but it is nevertheless essential if you want to ensure your organization considers all points of view. (This archetype, by the way, provides a convenient excuse for individuals in the workplace not to be more proactive in offering up their suggestions.)

So what could the leader of the meeting have said or done:

  • Groups should have a pre-approved checklist of issues to consider every time an important decision is made. Once the checklist is followed, the leader should ask if there are additional issues to consider in this instance.
  • Groups should imagine how their opponents would view the decision. Would they welcome what we have done? How would they try to take advantage of it.
  • The leader could ask: What are we missing?
  • The leader could ask: How could we be wrong in this decision?
  • The leader could ask: If we find out a week from now the decision was wrong, what would have been the cause?

I'm not, by the way, fond of the idea of the leader turning to the new person in the room and asking them what they think. That puts them in the hot seat in precisely the way they want to avoid.

I'm sure there are other good suggestions for how managers can make it easy for people to disagree and offer rebel opinions. Please add yours!!