I have written a few times in the past about the requirement that leaders are obliged to present a dissenting opinion when they genuinely feel that there may be a better alternative solution. I have also noted that that the word “no” can be one of the most important and valuable words in the leader’s lexicon. Having a different or contrary opinion does not make anyone any less a member of the team. It makes them someone who continues to maintain a different perspective on the business knowing that the diversity of opinion is a key to business health.
It is an exceedingly difficult line for a leader to walk. Many times a dissenting opinion can be confused with open opposition, which is something most managers cannot tolerate. Sometimes management doesn’t want to hear a differing opinion. Many times they can be quite content with a single perspective. What do you do when you have much to say to the contrary, but all that is desired of you is to hear you say “yes”?
I think we have all probably been in a situation like this from time to time. Most of the time situations like this are usually transient. Sometimes there is complete alignment on business topics. Occasionally there is divergence of opinions. Many times there are aspects of both alignment and divergence of opinions. This is what is known as a healthy business environment.
In this sort of business environment differing opinions are understood and accepted. The challenge is to the idea or the process, not the individual. The objective is to try and get to the best solution. As I said, this is in an ideal environment. Unfortunately individuals are prone to differing behaviors in the business environment.
Issues such as cultural differences, personalities, management styles and differing individual versus corporate objectives can come into play. Any one or more of these factors can contribute to a situation where the differences of perspective, opinion and approach are no longer the exception to the management alignment, but seem to become the standard.
In many instances there can also be “opinion drift”. If another manager sees that the alignment of opinion is better rewarded than the healthy discussion of alternatives, eventually a polarizing of positions and opinions can take place. It can fall more and more to the leader to make sure that the contrary is both heard and considered.
In time a situation can evolve where management is no longer looking for a specific or studied input on any new idea or direction. As more and more opinions drift into total alignment with management all that is desired is for all the various team members to align and say yes to each new process or direction and immediately get behind it. There can be a total breakdown in the structure of the healthy challenge business model. Contrary views and opinions in such an organization can begin to be viewed as oppositional and divisive.
Before leaping to specific conclusions along this line of thinking, as always it is best to take a step back to understand and assess the situation. Sometimes it only feels as though the stars are aligning and that everyone is aligning without due consideration. A complete management alignment along the lines described is a pretty rare event in my business experience.
On the other hand, I can hear the words my dad used to say in just about any situation that could even be remotely considered a parallel to this. His favorite was:
“Just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean that they are not out to get you.”
He would also say:
“Aim low because the bad guys* could be crawling.”
*Dad actually used a more colorful word for “bad guys” that also started with a “b”, but I know my mom occasionally reads this and she doesn’t like it when I use such colorful language.
Needless to say, you needed to take what dad said with a grain of salt.
Sometimes the best approach to a potential situation, particularly one that involves the input and behavior of others, is to not be in a hurry to resolve the perceived issue. This approach runs almost entirely contrary to everything we have seen, learned and thought about business leadership.
We have learned that those who recognize the issue first, are the first to take steps to resolve the issue and those that do in fact resolve the issues first are the ones usually rewarded. This approach does normally work when identifying and resolving business issues. However when the issues are not business or performance in nature and are more personality or management style related, an immediate and direct approach may be difficult.
It is best to remember that it always takes two to have a difference of opinion. In most instances no one sees themselves as being either wrong, or in the wrong. Sometimes a mismatch of this type can occur.
It is again at times like these that I think back to my dad and what he told me about these instances. He said:
“I may not always be right, but I am always boss”
I think that this was his way of telling me that while I was under his purview I was the one responsible for finding a way to rationalize our cultural or generational differences. Since he was the one paying the bills at that time, it did make a certain amount of sense.
However the parent offspring relationship is not the same as the leader team member relationship when it comes to differences of opinion. Leaders need to understand that differences of opinion, even prolonged ones, are something that should be expected. The recognition by the leader that opinion diversity needs to exist for the business to stay healthy is key. Differing opinions do not mean wrong opinions.
One of the best ways to establish a baseline for dealing with these management differences is to revisit past differences with an eye toward what the different positions were and what the eventual resolution of the difference was. Facts are normally everyone’s friends. The historical record has a funny way of refocusing the disagreement away from positions and more toward resolutions.
Business is about performance. Performance comes from taking the right positions and making the right choices. The historical record is always very clear along these lines. If the right positions are taken, contrary or aligned, the business performance will reflect this. If they weren’t then there are usually second and third “adjustments” that get made as the corrections are implemented.
I have found that members of teams that I have been leading are in many instances much closer to the specific issues at hand than I was. Because they have been closer they usually had a better vantage point from which to derive a solution. It has served me very well in the past to stop, even when I am so absolutely sure of the elegance, purity and accuracy of my solution, and truly understand why they are saying “no” when all I wanted to hear was “yes”.
In many instances I was fortunate to have done so. We can all be prone to having blind spots in our solutions when we are so sure of their accuracy. When someone wasn’t ready to go along with the desired solution, it usually was for a good reason, and that reason probably needed to be reviewed and possibly incorporated into the actual solution.
It almost always made for a stronger final solution.
All leaders will always want their teams to say yes, but will be open to addressing and incorporating differing or contrary opinions. This is how solutions are strengthened. Other managers may be less tolerant and accepting of differing positions with the resulting opinion drift I mentioned before.
Understanding which environment you are in will be a key in deciding how you can respond when someone is looking for you to say yes.