A recent discussion with my friend Sally reminded me of a hard-learned career lesson. She was frustrated that her staff was not keeping her out of trouble. “I tell them what I think we should do, and they do it—without sharing information they know and I don’t that might mean my suggestion was the wrong course of action.” She wondered if the behavior was malicious, and she wasn’t sure how to respond.
I’ve known Sally for a dozen years, and I enjoy working with her. She is very smart, quick, assertive, and impatient. When she gets wound up, she can be intimidating. I suspected that what she was experiencing wasn’t necessarily sabotage and might just be people trying (ineffectively) to serve her.
Talking to one of Sally’s team members, I got another perspective on the situation. “Sally is so demanding,” he said. “If she says jump, we jump. We wouldn’t dare contradict her. We’ll find a way.” He was trying to be a good trooper, but his passive approach wasn’t serving him. Sally wasn’t getting the information she needed. Things weren’t getting done.
Concerned about contradicting, interrupting, or disappointing her, her team assumed that Sally had better command of the facts than they did and became passive and compliant rather than questioning her.
Early in my career as a follower, I often used the opposite approach. I was quick to argue and contradict, asserting loud and long that I wasn’t going to play “political games.” I was going to work to the best of my ability and not care about what other people thought. If I thought a suggestion was stupid, I would call it that and let the chips fall where they might—after all, that’s what I was getting paid for, right? As you might imagine, I was a bull in the proverbial china shop. I broke a lot of glass, much of it needlessly. I certainly exasperated my share of leaders and teams. With experience, I learned that one could be a little diplomatic and sensitive to different situations without “playing games.” It didn’t have to be an either-or proposition.
If You Have an Impatient Leader
Constructive team member behavior is neither overly passive nor needlessly confrontational. It also isn’t some impossible average between these two approaches. As a team member, it is useful to find out what your leader’s goals are and do your best to serve your leader in accomplishing them. This means providing necessary information at the appropriate time in an effective way. This sounds easy, but it can be tricky—particularly if you haven’t had much opportunity to develop a relationship with the leader. The best and simplest way to figure out if the current moment is a good time for feedback is to ask. Useful questions include:
- What do we want to accomplish right now?
- Is this a good time for questions?
- When is the appropriate time to discuss risks or concerns with this approach?
This serves the dual purpose of gently seeking permission to ask a question or provide additional information, while encouraging a leader to slow down and consider his or her current pace and the urgency of the matter at hand. This also gives the leader the chance to communicate if this ISN’T the time for questions - always a leader’s prerogative.
If You Are an Impatient Leader
When it’s your turn to lead, try to slow down, even in an emergency. Remain open to input and confirmation of your understanding and the approach. If you find yourself cutting people off when they have questions or concerns, the message you are communicating, intentional or not, is that you don’t want their information. If the situation is urgent and you find yourself getting impatient with interruptions, consider adding more structure to the meeting. Pause and outline a quick agenda:
- What you are trying to accomplish right now
- When you would like to field questions
- When you would like to discuss risks or concerns
There is a big difference between not wanting people to raise questions, issues, and risks at all and not wanting to raise them right now. It sounds subtle, but it isn’t.
What If a Leader Might Be Making a Mistake?
There is a big difference between challenging people in a public forum and assuring that they are making informed decisions. In a professional setting, no one likes to appear foolish. If that seems obvious, please invent a time machine and send that message back to rookie me thirty years ago.
Let’s assume a team leader is talking about the testing schedule for the next two weeks and seems to have forgotten that another project has priority on the test server in week two. Some won’t mind the interruption to point that out; others might. To avoid seeming to challenge an impatient leader, here are two approaches that can work well:
- Simplest (passive, but gets the job done)—Follow up one on one to assure a leader has any important information you think is essential to the task at hand. This avoids public embarrassment and focuses on the issue. Be ready to be told, “You should have said something in the meeting.” You probably should have, but you got the information out and you did it in a diplomatic way.
- More expedient (but requires more finesse)—Look for a moment when you can ask a question that will lead to the relevant information, for example “I wonder if test-server priority might be an issue?” Let the question hang there. Asking the question will likely give the leader pause. This gives you or others a chance to bring up the conflict as part of naturally exploring the problem.
Which would you prefer if you were running the meeting? How might you react?
Ideally, we are all patient and considerate at all times. We never get grumpy or curt or feel thwarted when someone raises objections to our plans. Meanwhile, back on Earth, there are humans involved in the communication. Whether you are the leader or the led, effective communication is respectful of the situation in which the message is delivered and the communication style of those involved.