Training & Development

Quint column: Make it OK to challenge

Quint Studer.

Have you ever heard the statement: “He surrounds himself with ‘yes’ men.”

When people share with me that their job is to make the boss look good, I reply that it’s much more important for the leader to take actions that are good. Making someone look good when they are not taking good actions only reinforces the bad actions.

There is nothing more dangerous to the health of an organization than a boss surrounded by people who only agree with them or act like they do when they don’t. The book Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin explains how President Abraham Lincoln shocked many by putting people who disagreed with him in his administration.

The author illustrates how valuable this was. Some people liked the rival better than the president, and when the rival came out agreeing with the president it gained more support than if Lincoln supported on his own.

Being part of the team gave those men a better understanding of Lincoln — and it helped Lincoln gain a better perspective, also. I’m not suggesting leaders surround themselves with closed-minded people or people who will sabotage an organization.

I’m simply saying that you should create a culture where challenging is encouraged.

For example, in columns I try to stay away from mentioning businesses I operate. However, I know them well and I feel Studer Community Institute did something lately that is a good example of allowing and welcoming “push back.”

SCI, our 501c3, not-for-profit organization, recently hosted its first “Light Up Learning” event to raise money for our initiative to show parents the tremendous impact they have in building their child’s brain.

As the founder of the institute, I am very passionate and involved in this initiative. We planned to show a four-minute video that explained SCI’s initiative and how we would utilize the funds raised.

The plan to produce the video was in place, but about a week before the shoot the person hired to do the job was ill and could not finish the project. I sent a note to the SCI staff saying that it’s probably too late to get this together with another person. We’ll just skip the video and we’ll do our explanation from the stage.

I quickly got a response that the staff disagreed with me. They felt they could find another person to do the job. They also felt strongly it would be a mistake to forgo the video. So, we did the video.

The video came together and made a tremendous impact, one so much better than a person with a microphone could have done. The video captured the hearts and minds of the attendees. In the wrap-up from the event, I thanked the person for the push back and how much better it was than what I had in mind.  We also discussed why creating such a culture is vital.

So, what stops a culture from being one in which people can push back to the top leaders?

—  The staff may assume the top leader is smarter than them and trust the leaders’ decision making.

— The staff may be fearful of disagreeing because they either have witnessed or heard that the top leader does not respond well to people questioning them.

— The staff person my doubt their own thoughts and doesn’t want to look stupid.

— The staff may fear retribution.

— The leader may not have encouraged such feedback.

Here are some tips for leaders to encourage push back.

— Explain to staff that you need to hear from them, especially your direct reports, anytime they feel you are off track and or there may be consequences you are missing. Be direct with your questions, such as, what am I missing? What am I not thinking of? Say “please speak up, don’t let us go down the wrong track.”

— Do the same for those who work with the company. These are usually accountants, lawyers or consultants. Ask them the same questions. Sometimes people try to get the sense of where the top boss wants to go and then reinforces the behavior versus good healthy feedback.

— Test your team’s comfort with questioning. To see if people are willing to challenge, take an approach you don’t even agree with or you know is way off the grid. See who speaks up.

— Thank you’s. Thank those who push back appropriately and tell them how vital they are to the organization.

— Communicate openly. Just because you have skill in a certain area as the leader you could be lacking in others. Don’t be afraid to say, “protect me from me.”

Here are the tips for people in the position of potentially questioning the boss:

If it is illegal or unethical, do not take the action the boss wants. Obviously, but hopefully this is the great exception.

Share openly. Tell the boss you will take the action he or she wants, however, you want to ask a few questions or bring up concerns.

Inquire. Ask your boss if they are open to feedback and say, this is your perception.

From Bernie Madoff to Enron, we have read about organizations where employees end up paying dire consequences for a top leader’s actions. This is often because of people staying silent for all sorts of reasons from lack of knowledge to fear to prioritizing pay and job security over taking the right actions.