As Your Leader, I Could Be Wrong

Challenging a leader’s directives can be frightening. “The powerful are often oblivious to their impact,” writes Adam Galinsky in a recent New York Times article, “Your Whisper May Feel Like a Shout.”

So when it comes to questioning a leader, it’s only natural for people to be motivated more by fear of being in trouble than by potential for accomplishment. Nobody wants to be seen as oppositional, which can happen when they don’t agree — or at least go along — with the leader and the pack.

A staff’s ability to disagree with its leader depends on the leader’s believing and demonstrating that thinking independently on behalf of the team, customers, or business is so desirable that it’s worth the risk.

But many leaders provide little to no encouragement for their staff to face up to them. That’s because most leaders got where they are by being right enough, often enough. Some never question themselves, and it can seem shocking and out of line when someone else does it. Other leaders are perpetually self-questioning, and may see others’ questions as potentially exposing their weaknesses or errors.

Set Them Up to Speak Up

What can you do, as a leader, to help your team evaluate what you’re saying or planning? It can be remarkably helpful to say in meetings — whether large and public or small and private — “Don’t just adopt my suggestions. Evaluate them!”

Here are some behaviors to recommend to your staff:

  • Compare any directive to the declared mission and strategy. (Note: Before trying this, be aware that if your declared mission and strategy are not congruent with where today’s organization needs to go, you’ll have to work on teeing those things up first.)
  • Ask outright, “Is this what you meant?” Using their own words, they can share with you the logical ramifications of taking action.
  • Bring to bear data that hasn’t been suggested or used, but nonetheless seems relevant.
  • Do a gut check. Say, “I feel queasy about this. I’m not sure why” — and ask the rest of the team — and you — to help play out their scenario of concerns.

You Go First

There’s great satisfaction in having subordinates be so committed and so engaged that they’re willing to speak up about what you didn’t see, or to offer a way to take your kernel of an idea to a better place.

What can you do to model such behaviors?

  • Try public self-questioning: “At first I was concerned about A, B, and C, and needed more data to verify D, E, and F. What do you think of those conclusions?” Show that self-questioning can be a business-like testing process, not a source of nervous anxiety.
  • Note whenever you contradict any previous guidance or direction. Then, reconcile the two, or explain why you’re choosing the new course.
  • Control your facial expressions and body language. When you’re challenged, your reaction in the moment — particularly your visible physical reactions –have significant impact on your team. Changes in tone, facial expression, even your position in your chair can cause people to back off or falter.
  • Thank your challengers. This is crucial, not just for your own credibility, but as part of modeling the appropriate behavior under challenge at all levels.

Onward and upward,


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