Ask More Questions and Tell Fewer Lies

Lois and I made a conscious decision to write Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change from Within for fellow rebels lacking leadership positions in large organizations. There were at least two other audiences we could have written for: The Rebel Manager. Someone actually in a leadership position trying to take an organization in a different direction. That's whom I usually think of when I hear the term Change Agent.

The Manager of Rebels. Here we're referring to “bosses” who want to be helpful to their “rebels.” Often they recognize the need for innovation, but don't have the ideas themselves. Or don't want to be the front person for a change initiative but wouldn't mind supporting people willing to take the lead. I think sometimes Rebels at Work can be overly critical of managers who recognize a problem but don't want to push the solution directly. Sure, some of them are playing it overly safe, but others may have good reasons to demur. They may have fought many battles earlier in their careers, and just don't have enough juice left for another push. Or they realize they may not have enough influence in their hierarchy to pursue a direct approach.

rebels-at-work-bookThese well-intended managers of rebels keep asking us some great questions at talks we've given recently. And a lot of them revolve around how to manage a team of individuals holding strong opinions. You would think managers would want teams of strong thinkers. HA! We all know managers are still trained and many are in any case inclined to achieve homogeneity and harmony in the work place What is otherwise lovingly referred to as CONSENSUS. As Luke Visconti of Diversity Inc. recently wrote in his Ask the White Guy column:

The dominant culture, regardless of who it is or where it is, is driven to value conformity.

If more businesses and organizations truly valued Diversity of Thought, the need for Rebels at Work would decline significantly. So I spent some time this weekend checking out the latest research on the topic.

The good news is that there is some recent research. The most noteworthy is an MIT study published this fall that examines whether diversity of teams in terms of gender and tenure was associated with 1. team harmony and 2. team productivity (as measured by revenue.) The study doesn't measure diversity of thought per se, but gender differences and varying levels of work experience often are associated with the clash of ideas in the workplace.

The study has some interesting and sometimes counterintuitive findings. Teams composed of members who were hired at different times did not show lower levels of cooperation, but, according to the researchers, did show significantly lower levels of performance. Teams with higher levels of gender diversity, however, were associated with reduced team harmony, but in this case these teams were also associated with significantly higher levels of performance. (Interestingly, mixed gender teams easily outperformed both all-male and all-female teams.)

The press has popularized the study by reporting that diverse teams are more productive but less happy. But I think the study points to a more nuanced conclusion--the need for managers to develop better techniques for dealing with differences in the workplace, whatever their causes. The tension that comes with the clash of ideas is a frequent challenge for Rebels at Work. Often, the Rebel is so caught up in the excitement of advancing her ideas that she fails to notice and/or discounts the unhappiness and discomfort building among her teammates. The manager, whose training emphasized the need to build consensus but not how to navigate turbulent whitewater, is often just a bystander as his team blows up. Clearly, there's a lot of work to be done here.

Some preliminary ideas for managers of rebels.

  • “Rethink your default settings”. The phrase comes from a report by a UK consultancy on how to increase diversity on boards. I'm using it here to refer to the habits and practices that managers of team rarely question. How do you run your meetings? Whom do you talk to first about an issue? What priorities does your calendar reflect? Examine everything and consider upending most of it. For example, if you have a new influx of team members, let them set the agenda for an upcoming meeting. Give them a chance to share their observations without interruption.
  • Acknowledge different categories of “expertise” for your team. I've seen many teams where only one type of expertise is recognized and valued. Either you are on expert on how things have always been done—standard operating procedures, or you're here to learn. Sound familiar? But how about having a team discussion on the different types of expertise that could be useful to meeting team goals. Who is most familiar with the new research? Who here understands the growing Hispanic market? Who is on top of new technology? Just having an explicit conversation about the many categories of useful knowledge can be an eye opening experience for team members.
  • Talk explicitly about individual thinking and work styles. There's any number of free tests on the internet about thinking styles and they are all useful. But recently I've found it to be just as effective to have team members describe “how they think” or “how they solve problems” to each other. Most people know if they are good with detail or if they prefer to play with bigger concepts. I've come to believe that most job performance issues are caused by asking people to do tasks for which they are not well-suited. Forget the job descriptions. Let individuals gravitate to the tasks they do well.
  • Ask more open-ended questions and tell fewer lies. OK, well maybe managers don't tell lies on purpose. But in their effort to project certainty, they often make pronouncements suffused with an unjustified air of certainty. Monitor the number of declarative sentences you make as a manager and resolve to replace at least a third of them with questions. Here's an example. A team member asks you how the team plans to meet a difficult deadline. Instead of providing your not-so-definitive answer, why not just reflect the question back to the team. “That's a great question. What ideas do you all have.” You've now encouraged everyone on your team to speak, including the different thinkers and rebels.

I'm sure there's many more ideas out there. Please do share in the comments.