Poor Leaders Don't Want to be Challenged...Do You?
It is very difficult to challenge your leader successfully and regularly. Let's be honest, you are never going to agree with 100% of the decisions your leader makes. When you disagree you have the choice - say nothing and nod your head, or challenge. If you have some great ideas to put forward, if you want to challenge the leader, then the question is how to get comfortable enough to speak your mind without damaging your career.
I believe that poor leaders don't want to be challenged by their employees – and can’t handle being wrong - that good leaders want to be challenged, whilst great leaderscreate a culture where they encourage and promote people to challenge one another.
So how do you challenge your leader in a smart and effective manner?
Right forum, right circumstances and the right way.
Most organisation have a multiple layers of leadership. For example, I've got leaders who report into me, I have a leader, my leader has her own leader and so on. I agree with Penny's article that leaders need some “challengers” around them because they are the ones that drive improvement in you personally and in the business you are responsible for.
Regardless of your job title, you should be in a position to make valuable contributions to your employer. If you are working for a great leader, you might notice that they are often the last to speak as backed up by Simon Sinek's recent leadership talk. They are looking for employees to challenge where appropriate as lack of new ideas is often what stifles innovation. Your boss can't be all things to all people and they will need your thoughts and ideas in order to make the best decisions.
A common hesitation not to challenge for fear of rocking the boat is natural, yet your silence could be you taking the easy way out, and in successful businesses the easy way out often results in the the worst decision. New research has shown that staying silent can lead to questionable actions further down the chain, clouding the final results of your projects and creating inefficient work environments.
The key is a good balance of knowing when to challenge your leader and when to back down. It’s one thing being an employee who frustrates your boss because you continually challenge them or become oppositional to the point that they no longer feel like you are on their side. It’s another thing agreeing with everything they say and doing it to the point you become known as a 'yes' employee.
I know from my own experiences, I'm willing to be challenged by my team members, although this willingness is reduced significantly if I'm challenged in the wrong way.
How and when to stop being a “yes-man”.
Provided your manager and your colleagues are switched on, they'll know if you simply go along with every decision your boss makes. All of a sudden you're known as the 'yes' employee, therefore potentially someone who lacks real leadership qualities.
I refer to these people in business as 'soldiers' – someone who is very committed, loyal, and good at acting on instruction but lacks the skills, experience or ability to be a true leader. Each manager absolutely needs their group of 'soldiers' and there is nothing wrong with these traits, but if you're an ambitious and emerging leader you need to do more than fall in line behind someone else. I call the people who challenge intelligently and challenge often as ‘champions’ – people as committed to their work and performance as a 'soldier', combined with the skills, experience and bigger picture thinking to be a true leader.
Become a champion in your business with these simple steps.
Prepare & anticipate
Get all the facts and anticipate your boss’s counterargument. Gather resources and data to back up your case and make it more credible. You’ll be able to stand out for the right reasons, making yourself a valuable part of the team. In my experience, the best teams thrive on productive challenging. If you can get that right, you won’t just be making a contribution to your team, you’ll be showing you have what it takes to take the next step yourself.
Know your boss
Understand your boss’s personality before diving in. Maybe you know that Friday’s are especially busy, so you’ll wait until Monday to provide your thoughts. Perhaps you should consider scheduling a meeting so you’re guaranteed a few minutes to talk it through or simply wait until your next designated catch up. This way you can both prepare mentally and emotionally for the conversation, rather than trying to work it all out on the run. Even better, if you’re still unsure – schedule an open discussion with your manager to talk about their expectation of you when you have something to challenge. Just have the discussion, if you don’t ask you might not get.
Don't sweat on the small stuff
Approach your boss about trivial matters and you risk the reputation that you’re losing sight of the big picture – which can portray a lack of initiative and vision. Keep in mind that your boss is busy. Put yourself in their shoes, for example I prefer my team members to focus on the more important issues at hand.
Don't worry about getting tongue tied.
I know that in my career, if I've been overly passionate about a topic my emotions can cause me to beat around the bush in an effort to get my point across. Less is sometimes more and it's important to keep the issue in the foreground.
If you have the right level of trust, your boss will know it isn’t personal. However apologise too much and you won't be taken seriously, and if you’re too confrontational the effort could backfire as arrogance. Stay calm, focussed, clear and to the point.
Focus on you, not your peers
I once learned a valuable lesson not to challenge on behalf of my peers. Whilst the intention was good, this can potentially make you seem more important than them and a bit ahead of oneself. You don’t know the conversations your manager is having behind closed doors with your peers, I recommend you let your peers fight their own battles and talk for themselves.
Choose your terrain
A good leader will set the tone for team meetings or similar sessions in terms of promoting debate, challenge and respectful disagreement. If there is any doubt, I'd recommend talking in private before making your challenge in a public setting or whole-office meeting. In some cases, your boss might have really made a mistake and it could be dangerous to bring it up publicly. Believe it or not I've seen employees make demands and embarrass their boss - rarely have I seen that end well for the challenger.
Walk out of the room united
There’s a time and place for everything, and this time might not be yours. If your boss refuses to consider your argument, respect the decision and make sure they and everyone else in the organisation knows they still have your full support. Complain to others that you're on a different page to your boss and risk the consequences.
Your ability to accept a decision will support the trust that allowed you to disagree in the first place. How you respond might even lead them to reconsider their decision later on or to seek out your input on another matter.
I'm fortunate to work with-in an Executive Leadership team who promote challenge, however I always make it my mission to walk out united and if I don't agree I've learned to quickly suck it up and move on to the next challenge knowing there are plenty more to come.
Work on the relationship
Challenging your leader isn’t simply passing the buck to them, if you want things to change in any real way you need to be ready to take on the responsibility and continue to nurture, develop and innovate both your ideas and your relationship with your leader.
Trust is an obvious key of all good relationships, I recommend you do your part to earn it. This isn’t just about trying to get into your manager's good books, you have to show you care about your job, the company, the people and the relationship with your boss.
Be consistent, considerate and reliable, it will show your boss not only that you respect them but you’re operating as one team. Then when it comes time to challenge again, be ready to offer recommendations, and explain why those ideas could be better options, and then follow through and turn your ideas into results.
Challenging your boss can be very difficult, and often confronting. Done poorly and there may be negative consequences and damage to your career prospects. Done well - and that's where the magic happens, it can transform you to become an exciting and forward thinking employee who adds exceptional value.