Permission to Disagree

Leaders and managers, simply because of their position in an organization, can exert significant influence over discussions and decisions.  When there’s a debate (or just an open discussion) about some important decision, chiming in with an opinion as “the boss” carries a weight of its own.  It’s natural for people to be influenced by the attitude or views or perceived direction provided by their management.

I’ve worked hard through my years as a leader to be explicitly aware of that power.  I don’t avoid it, but I’m careful to use it consciously and intentionally.  Frequently (and sometimes to the amusement of colleagues and subordinates), I explicitly and overtly work to avoid this situation.  I will often preface my comments with “I’m not the expert on this…” or “Maybe I’m being naïve here but…” or even “This might be a bad idea, but…”  With each of those openings (and countless variations), I’m silently telling people “You have my permission to disagree with me and say so.”  This is an important lesson for leaders to learn (and an important skill to possess as a leader).

There is a strong foundation necessary for this approach to work.  Most importantly, the leader needs to feel that he (or she) has the respect and confidence of his subordinates.  Weak leaders who demonstrate weakness just become weaker.  [Make no mistake – leading with “maybe I’m wrong” isn’t a show of strength!]  This style will only be successful for individuals who feel secure in their relationships with co-workers and comfortable in their own knowledge and ability to make sound decisions. 

In addition, a leader needs to feel secure in the relationship with other leadership (including his superiors) in the organization.  Again, if I feel that my boss is looking for reasons to criticize me or squeeze me out, I’m unlikely to be open to solicit criticism and disagreement.

Finally, for this approach to work, the individuals being empowered must be skilled enough for it to matter.  A manager isn’t going to tell someone “it’s OK to disagree with me” if the manager doesn’t think that person has any basis for being right in the first place.  A strong organization needs strong individuals, not just strong leaders.  A good leader needs to build a team that includes people who can be trusted with “I need you to share your ideas too, even if they differ from mine.”

In a well-run organization (i.e., one that doesn’t reflect the insecurities described in the previous paragraphs), this style can be particularly effective.  Strong organizations have exceptional employees at every level.  Those employees have good ideas and have a solid understanding of the problems they confront in their daily work.  When looking for solutions to problems, those employees often have the best, the most effective, and the most practical ideas.  Stifling those ideas means stifling the value of the most skilled employees and ultimately can harm the company.

 For now…I’ll leave you with this thought:

Actively seek out ideas from others, even when it means giving them permission to disagree with you.

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