Have you heard "I think we're doing something wrong" recently? If not, you're doing something wrong.

By Adam Siegel on July 20, 2017

If you’re in a management position in your organization - wherever that may be, from a typical office environment, to a leader of men and women in the military, with thousands of people under your watch, or just a handful, ask yourself this simple question: Can your team, whether collectively or an individual, come to you and tell you to your face that something you’re doing, or something the organization is doing, is a bad idea?

Despite the billions spent annually on technology trying to get us to “collaborate,” I’m often struck by how poor organizations are at the basic blocking and tackling of open and honest conversations, especially when it comes to expressing disagreement.

I understand this is no small lift. Humans in an organization, according to psychologist Robert Hogan, have just a few basic motives: the need to get along, the need to get ahead, and the need to find meaning. There are elements in all 3 of those motives that would lend us to not be open with our disagreements even if it’s done in the healthiest, most professional way.

I’ve been here. In my old consulting job at Accenture, I thought initiatives, certain deliverables, even the way an email was written to someone were absolutely wrong headed, but didn’t say a word, for fear of upsetting someone, instead following the “pick your battles” mantra. As a leader myself both at Accenture and now in my own company, sometimes I’ll find out weeks later everyone thought something we were doing didn’t make any sense, but no one said anything at the time. Or if they do tell me they disagree, I’ve been known *grin* to get annoyed at having to explain myself or question a direction I thought was already set.

In personal terms, neither situation feels good and is de-motivational. In business terms, a “wait a second, is this a good idea?” check can be invaluable to either avoid a pitfall, or increase transparency and give everyone a shared understanding of why something is being done the way it is, even if they disagree.

So what are some simple things we can do, both as leaders, and as the people that work for them, to improve this situation and still fulfill the motivating factors Hogan discovered?

Interacting With Your Team

  • Build rapport. Make the time to ask people to impromptu coffees, send articles you think people might be interested in, or anything else that makes people feel like you see them as not just cogs in a process, but motivated and engaged people who want to do well by you.
  • Proactively prompt for candid face to face interaction. There are natural times to direct and manage, and there are times where your job should be to just listen and discuss. Email and chat are easy for this, but the most effective is always face to face where you’re not doing most of the talking.
  • Create ongoing, quantified, feedback outlets for your team(s). There are some people who are never going to feel comfortable having candid conversations. What do you do about them? Ideally you provide an outlet where they can do something online, even anonymously. Surveys are always an option, but more modern options are anonymous prediction markets to gather feedback about milestones, or quick pulse type platforms.
  • Acknowledge being wrong. Saying you were wrong and owning up to decisions that prove out to be mistakes builds trust with your team and shows it’s ok to admit mistakes, so when they inevitably make them, it feels safe to do so, and you avoid the fire drills when people explicitly do not say something is wrong early enough.

Interacting With Leaders

  • Learn how to formulate your criticism. There is a fine line between someone interpreting your conversation as whining, and one that feels productive and helpful, even if you’re essentially delivering a “shit sandwich” as an old manager of mine used to call it. Any criticism is fine, just make sure it’s accompanied by your thoughts on alternatives.
  • Ask questions to make sure you know what your leader is looking for. People have all different ways of working. Over time you’ll learn what your boss likes and dislikes, but it never hurts to ask, especially as you start a new role, or are embarking on a major deliverable. “I was thinking X, how were you thinking of this?” can go a long way.
  • Give timely feedback. Don’t wait 3 weeks after something has happened to give your upward feedback. Talk about it as soon as possible so it’s fresh in everyone’s mind.
  • Pick a delivery method in which you feel comfortable, and your leaders are in the position to listen. For example, a guy who used to work for me used to send me these novel emails, and while he always made valid points, I hated getting these emails because they required a lot of time to read, process, and reply. A 30 minute conversation over coffee could have been much more effective.  

Adam Siegel, CEO Cultivate Labs

By: Adam Siegel


change management disruptive leadership crowdsourced forecasting