Against the Grain or Go with the Flow?
You find yourself in an executive meeting and your peers are all in harmonious agreement about a decision, but there’s been little discussion. You feel strongly that the decision they’re about to make isn’t the best for the company, the community or the people involved. You feel that another direction is the best course of action. What do you do? Do you step into courage and speak up against the majority, but risk offending, alienating or appearing foolish? Or, do you go along to get along and step into harmonious agreement with your peers, but walk away with regret or resentment? So, then what do you do when you disagree with others’ management style or decision-making process?
The first is to ask yourself how important this issue is to you and the potential impact to the others affected. Is this your hill to die on? Some leaders push back and speak up on every issue, the downside is that your colleagues feel worn down and are preparing for you to dig in on everything. I encourage you to let go on issues that aren’t material yet aren’t being handled the way you would prefer or that you would decide. It is these situations that letting go is the key practice, to recognize that letting go of being right, winning or being liked won’t have disastrous consequences but may lead to some discomfort. Recognize that this is an area you may be wrong or even if you’re right can lead to learning for the team through any resulting failure.
On important and material issues, speak up with courage and empathy. These could be ethics, values or other key directional issues but not every issue. There is a fine line and also a clear difference between assertiveness and aggressiveness when addressing your perspective. Assertiveness is speaking up on tough issues. Say what needs to be said, ask what you need to ask with regard for your audience and how it will land. Consider framing your argument in how it will benefit others rather than yourself to win others over. Aggressive on the other hand is speaking your mind and forcing your opinion on the other person and tends to be self-focused. Once you share what you feel you must, move back to curiosity and ask lots of questions to understand the perspective of others and be prepared to be disagreed with and to support the decision of the group.
When you choose to stay silent, you propagate false harmony within the team and workarounds arise to help the team manage their frustrations and disagreements. Instead of working it out in active discussion in the meeting, we see passive-aggressive behaviours such as back-channeling (also known as ‘the meeting after the meeting’) or those who disagree but didn’t speak up actively working to undermine the decision and find workarounds. This erodes trust, respect, and emotional safety in the team as much or more than aggressive conflict behaviour.
I have deep concern for teams where everyone is overly nice and there is limited or no debate on important issues. I worry about the limited perspectives considered and the quality of the decisions that come out. Groups like this are respectful and pleasant, but not engaged in the topic or committed to the outcome. As a result, accountability for actions after the decision is made diminishes. Lencioni’s model of the Five Dysfunctions of a Team shows us that dysfunctional teams lack trust and as a result avoid conflict but highly effective teams build strong foundations of trust and engage in healthy and active conflict. When teams operate with deep trust and healthy conflict, issues are fully debated, all perspectives are heard and considered and then when I decision is made everyone can get behind and support the decision even if it’s not the decision each would personally make.
Leaders are asked to step into courage, yet courage can take two forms in this case. It can be just as courageous to choose restraint as it is to speak up with empathy and care on tough issues. Whether you are meeting with your direct reports, your peers, or even senior leaders the discernment and self-management required is the same.