Have you ever had an employee come to you with an idea or proposal to address a particular situation to which you answered with one of the following replies?
“That’s a great idea, but let’s shop this around a bit first.”
“I agree that we need to change this, but I’m not sure now is the best time.”
“It’d be nice if we could offer this, but I don’t think we can afford to right now.”
All of these responses sound understanding and appreciative of the employee’s input. And yet, notice how the use of “but” in each reply serves to effectively stop any further discussion or deeper examination of the proposal beyond this initial encounter.
Granted, there are times when leaders need to hold back eager employees because the measures they are suggesting might not be the best in terms of addressing a given problem the organization is facing. Unfortunately, such responses can also inhibit your employees’ sense of creativity and with it, your organization’s ability to innovate if the motivation behind this resistance is based on factors other than ensuring the collective success of your team.
With this in mind, here are four questions leaders can ask themselves to find out if they are letting their ‘buts’ get in the way of helping their team to succeed and thrive.
1. Are you driven by what you want or by accepting what is there?
One of the reasons why many ideas or suggestions employees present to their leaders are rejected – before there’s even a chance to test and evaluate them – is because we tend to frame these opportunities in terms of what we want, without any regard for what’s the reality our employees face every day.
Consider as an example the current economic environment. Sure, the global economy is in poor shape, but that’s clearly not stopping some organizations from being successful and even growing. Why is this so? Why is it that some companies can charge a premium for their products and reap massive profits while others are struggling to stay in the black?
One reason is because those in charge of these successful organizations are not focused solely on what they want, but instead are approaching the situation from the vantage point of how to make things work within the current realities of today’s economy.
Adding that ‘but’ in response to your employees’ suggestions or recommendations only serves to narrow your focus to waiting for ‘better times’, instead of being open to discovering alternative approaches to tap into the resources and opportunities your organization currently has to overcome the challenges standing in your way.
2. Do your decisions serve to maintain or challenge the status quo?
Regardless of where you are in the organizational food chain, most of us are apprehensive of change mainly because we don’t know where it might lead us. Change often forces us out of our comfort zones with no sure-fire guarantees that it will lead to any tangible improvements in the end. And so, it’s only natural that we resist any alternate approaches or ways of doing things, preferring to stay within the safe confines of keeping things the way they are.
Of course, by challenging the status quo, I don’t mean making such efforts purely for the sake of stirring things up. Rather, this is about reassessing whether the goals you had in place, the measures you’ve been employing, are still relevant both to the overall vision you have for your organization and in the context of what’s going on around you.
In falling for the lull of complacent thinking, it’s easy to shut down ideas or suggestions brought forth by your employees as your drive is not on pursuing goals as it is maintaining the status quo of how things are done around here. And as we’ve seen in many examples lately, such static thinking can have a disastrous impact on an organization’s long term viability in today’s turbulent and rapidly evolving global market.
3. Is your resistance due to the blind spots in your leadership?
Let’s face it, no one can know everything that goes on in an organization and that certainly becomes more evident the further you move away from the front lines. And yet, there’s still this prevailing notion that to be a leader requires you to have all the answers, instead of relying on those you lead to help you find them.
Again, there will be times where your ‘but’ might be warranted when looking at your employee’s suggestions in terms of the ‘bigger picture’. However, it’s important to remember that even at the midway point between the big picture and the reality your employees deal with every day, there are still many details of the goings-on in your organization that you might not be aware of.
Certainly, the problems we face today are becoming more complex and interconnected, which is why they can’t be solved by any one person. Instead, these problems need to be addressed through a collaboration with those who are impacted by it and with those who can bring valuable first-hand insights to help evaluate possible solutions.
When you say ‘but’, you’re not only limiting your ability to ascertain where the blind spots might be in your leadership, you’re also diminishing the input of others who have a clearer understanding of the situation and who can help you to develop the best approach for your organization.
4. What would happen if you said ‘what if’ instead of ‘but’?
In a previous piece I wrote about “The Marshmallow Challenge” and how kindergarten children were more successful than recent business school graduates in completing this experiment. The result is not too surprising when we consider how most education systems tend to focus on teaching and rewarding students for finding the best answer to a given problem. Although it’s vital that we learn how to be effective problem-solvers, in terms of leadership it’s also important that we learn how to ask the right questions to our employees.
Imagine if in those scenarios where your employees come to you with a new idea or possible solution that instead of replying with ‘but’, you ask instead ‘what if’? Now this shift in approach doesn’t mean that you necessarily agree or support their proposal. Rather, what this creates is an environment where employees feel like they can bring forth ideas so that others can help them to assess the viability of their proposal.
Of course, in addition to asking ‘what if’, it’s important that you encourage your employees to dig deeper in fleshing out their ideas and, when appropriate, providing them with some resources to do a limited run of their proposal, both to evaluate the potential of their idea as well as to see what your team can learn from the exercise.
British author and diplomat Sir Harold Nicolson wrote:
We are all inclined to judge ourselves by our ideals; others, by their acts.”
His words ring especially true for today’s leaders who need to remember that while we might have a vision and sense of purpose behind the decisions we make for the benefit of our team and organization, those we lead are often left only with the outcomes of those decisions to understand and appreciate what truly matters to their organization.
Seen from this vantage point, it becomes clear that leaders must always evaluate and review whether their ‘buts’ are serving to keep their organization moving in the right direction, or whether it’s only preventing their employees from utilizing their full potential in the process of achieving your shared goals.