Monday, March 08, 2010

The Independent “No”

At work, I’m trying to help my sub-managers learn to say no. More specifically, I’m trying to convince them it’s okay to say no to me.

As much as I like being in charge, and as much as I want people to support my ideas, I don’t need a team of people who agree with everything I do. In fact, I’ve tried to build a team of people who are strong where I’m weak and weak where I’m strong.

What I need (what every leader and movement needs) is people who are willing to disagree with me and defend their own independent judgment. When I screw up, I need teammates who will stand up and tell me that your idea is terrible, and here’s why ? even if the final decision is mine.

In particular, I’m looking for three things in myself and others: conviction, honesty, and reason.
  • Conviction means that you trust your own judgment and are willing to stand by what you believe is best, even if your boss/advisor/teammate/friend says otherwise.
  • Honesty is the willingness to say what you mean without hiding behind euphemisms, throwing around exaggerations, or jumping onto the soapbox.
  • Reason is the ability to defend your opinion, to give justifications for what you believe and why. It’s also a willingness to change your mind when or if you see that your reasons are flawed. Reason keeps conviction from becoming dogma or obstinacy.
These principles are key to any relationship, whether it’s for business, romance, or friends. But let’s just talk from a work/business standpoint for now.

As a manager, I need to know that my team members are able to tell me an independent “no” when needed. That means I need to consistently demonstrate that I’m open to criticism. Saying I’m okay with criticism is easy; showing it through action is the real test.

Note that being open to criticism doesn’t mean I’ll change my opinion every time I’m criticized! It doesn’t even mean I have to agree ? only that I take the criticism seriously.

I also need to be open and honest when I’m the one giving criticism or praise. I can’t be the kind of manager who says nice things to someone all year, then tears them apart in their annual review. My teammates to know that my praise is genuine and my criticism is unbiased. That’s one hell of an obligation for me. Every day, I learn a little more about how to honor it.

Here are the actionable takeaways:

If you’re a leader or in a position of authority, it’s your responsibility to help your people ? and yourself ? develop conviction, honesty, and reason. Think about this every day.

If you’re a follower (in the very best sense), remember that the people “in charge” need you to stand up and be an independent voice. Even the greatest leaders can get stuck in a rut from time to time. They need you to get them out and moving again.

On the other hand, if you’re following a leader who can’t respect your independent “no” (and by respect, I mean giving your opinion serious consideration, even if they ultimately overrule it), you need to find someone else to follow.

Or, even better, become someone worth following.

(via The Art of Great Things)