My old boss, Nick, used to have a saying for anytime he came up with a new idea (which seemed like every day – he was an innovation freak).
“What’s wrong with my idea?” he’d ask us.
The first time I heard him say this, I nervously looked at my colleagues to see if it was one of those career limiting traps dressed up as a curious question. But they all enthusiastically jumped on the ‘diss the boss’ idea’ bandwagon. Instead of getting defensive when Nick heard the challenging feedback, he listened to it and remained enthusiastic and warm-hearted in his approach.
Sometimes, after a robust debate, the idea would still go ahead. But, we’d have adopted a far more vigorous decision-making process to get to that point.
Making it easy for people to challenge your ideas is fundamental to effective leadership. The best leaders make it both easy and safe for their team to challenge upwards, even if it’s tough on the ol’ ego.
If your team seem reluctant to offer up conflicting opinions to yours, ask yourself the following questions:
- Am I giving people enough opportunity to discuss their ideas with me?
- How do I react when someone disagrees with me? Do I listen with an open mind or do I shut them down and act defensively?
- How often do I change course after listening to another person’s viewpoint? Hint: if the answer is “hardly ever”, you’ve got a problem!
- Am I exuding a ‘too tough for comment’ persona?
Here are some ways you can encourage varied viewpoints and spark healthy debate:
- Adopt a self-imposed ‘listen with an open mind’ mantra before you join any meeting. You could even put a reminder on your phone to make this intention more purposeful.
- Create processes in meetings which encourage divergent thinking, such as brainstorming or the WRAP decision making process from Chip and Dan Heath’s brilliant book, Decisive.
- Ask for other people’s opinions before offering your own. As the boss, people are hyper aware of positional power and are more likely to defer to the person in the room with the authority. Allowing others to go first with their opinion goes some way to counteract this.
- Regularly adopt questions which actively encourage debate, such as “if we were to play devil’s advocate to this idea, what would we say?” or “what are we missing?”
Gandhi said, “honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress” and I thank my old boss Nick for setting an example of this by openly asking ‘what’s wrong with my idea?’