“There’s no point arguing, she’s already got her mind set.”
I hear this from employees who have a boss with a strong personality. I recently wrote about why conflict avoiders find themselves in continual conflict (because they never address the root cause). The preponderance of comments came from bosses frustrated because their people are so reluctant to challenge them.
I frequently encounter well-intentioned bosses whose teams don’t tell them the hard truths. Bully bosses certainly exist, but most decent leaders truly want their team’s input. The challenge is overcoming the organizational and personality biases that get in the way. Here are three common issues we see in our work with leaders and strategies to get past them:
1. Unconscious beliefs about hierarchy
Unless you came to the workforce from an egalitarian island, you have beliefs about bosses and work. These unconscious beliefs, often gleaned from TV, movies, and your parents, formed before you even began working yourself. If you were raised around language like “stay under the radar” or “the boss doesn’t understand what real workers do,” those beliefs were seeping into your brain. A kid who grew up watching hours of Michael Scott’s blunders at The Office, or the Dad from The Wonder Years come home cursing his boss is going to think twice before speaking up.
If you’re the boss, recognize: your people didn’t show up as blank slates. Be proactive saying things like: “This place doesn’t work unless we’re all candid. I need your input.” Countering long-held beliefs requires constant new language and behaviors.
2. Bad early experiences
My own first experience with speaking up was negative because I was very unskilled. I told the 29-year-old owner of the health club where I worked I thought our ads looked terrible. He blew a gasket. I was a poor communicator dealing with an inexperienced leader. Are you surprised it went badly? Our early experiences can have a chilling effect on future behavior.
Support early efforts
If someone gives you negative feedback less than perfectly delivered, treat it like a great gift in ugly wrapping paper. Appreciate it. People who have never spoken up before aren’t good at it yet. Listen for the content and act on it. Delivery can improve over time.
3. Style differences
I come from a family of overtalkers. We don’t wait for a pause; we just add on top of the other person. It’s assumed, if you have an opinion, you’ll offer it. This works, if everyone is a raging extrovert and feels like they’re equals. Which is rarely the case at work. An extroverted high-energy person can be off-putting to people with a quieter (more polite) energy. When you’re the boss, your status makes it even harder for the more introverted to speak up.
If you’re presenting an idea, tell your team up front, “I’m super excited about this. Don’t mistake my enthusiasm for attachment, I want your feedback.” Ask questions like: Where do you see challenges? What am I missing? How could we make this better?
If you’re a talker, think about how much self-management it takes to keep quiet when you’re excited. Now double it. That’s how hard it is for some people to speak up.
If you have a strong personality, it’s an asset. Don’t let it become a liability. Make space for the people around you to add their part, and you’ll be even more successful.