I recently had an interesting discussion with an executive who’d come to newfound insight on power and influence. He’d given up a very high position in a sizeable company to follow a more entrepreneurial path, and he was now working in a very small startup enterprise with a largely collaborative and egalitarian decision making process. And even though the culture was much of his own making, he had to admit that his personal treatment within it came as a bit of a shock. His ideas were sometimes challenged as they’d not been in a long time, sometimes even a bit rudely, and the sheer weight of his opinion no longer always ruled the day.
This is precisely the environment that he wanted to create, where everyone would contribute with a free and aggressive exchange of ideas. It is in fact the way he had always tried to manage. Get it all out in the open, and let the best thinking prevail. That his ideas consistently came to the top, he figured, had more to do with their sheer logic than the position of the person in the organization who was speaking them.
No doubt he was right most of the time. He is in fact one of the smartest people I know, extremely experienced in his field, and he suffers no shortage of self-knowledge. Still, as he now understands in hindsight, his views were not challenged to the same degree that others were, and that surely had an impact on the outcome of some debates.
That subordinates don’t always quite speak their mind to powerful leaders is, of course, one of the first things that people learn when they enter the workplace. But when managers rise to high levels of influence, that’s also one of the first things they forget. It can happen even with the best of intentions, the best of participative management structures, and the best of subordinate staffs. Sometimes it happens, not out of domination, but out of respect. People defer to the Big Guy because he’s always been right before, and he’s probably the best bet now. Why break a sweat on critical thinking and risky debate when he already has a good answer in his head?
Here’s why: Because he’s not right about everything. Nobody is.
Good managers today are aware of all this, and they try their best to see that all ideas great and small are heard. But no one is immune to the disease. So, managers, please ask one more time, maybe two, “What do you really think?”