Sometimes you need to speak your mind, other times you need to say nothing, but every time you have to be strategic about what to say. Here is some executive coaching on how to know when to do each…
I was recently having coffee with a friend of mine who has an executive coaching practice focusing on physicians. The vast majority of her time is spent around coaching doctors on how to be more effective as they interact within large, complex hospital organizations.
It turns out that one way in which physicians tend to hinder their careers is by saying exactly what they think in meetings.
Now, on the one hand that makes sense. Physicians are trained as scientists, they are trained to analyze huge amount of information, diagnose problems, and give their medical opinions.
The thing is, while this is great in a patient setting, it may not work out so well in an organizational setting.
This is by no means unique to physicians. I’ve seen many professionals in organizations make the same mistake. In particular, intelligent people with a great deal of subject matter expertise.
Now before I get to the solution, let me guess what you are thinking. It is probably something like:
“I don’t want to work at an organization where I can’t be honest about what I think.”
“I’m highly paid because I have expertise and people want to know my opinion.”
“I would rather be myself than play political games.”
Well, we would all like to work in an organization where we can say what we think all the time. Guess what: unless you work by yourself, for yourself, and are independently wealthy, that organization doesn’t exist.
Why? Because even the owner of a small business has to worry about how her employees, suppliers, partners, etc will react to the things she says. Morale may increase, decrease, or she may lose staff all based on the words she uses.
Face it, people are social creatures.
Now there is a whole industry around Authentic Leadership. The idea is you should strive to be authentic all the time. Nice idea, and certainly agreeable.
However, as Jeffrey Pfeffer points out in his great book, “Leadership B.S.”, there are times when you just can’t be authentic.
Imagine this: you are an executive at a large firm. You know that in three weeks a division is going to be sold. The firm is still working out the details of who is staying and who is going, so the whole affair is extremely confidential. One afternoon someone a couple levels down in the organization comes by your office and asks you about a rumor they have heard that a division is being sold…
What do you do? Of course, every seasoned executive knows that you don’t share the information. You don’t lie if at all possible, but you figure out a way to honestly dodge the question.
Is that authentic? No, but it is good leadership because you just saved a whole lot of people from unnecessary pain, to say nothing of the organizational impacts.
So, with that as perspective, here are 6 things you need to consider before you “speak your mind” in that meeting:
What is your overall, long-term objective? –It is surprising how few people have clarity on this. You may have multiple objectives: getting promoted, getting a project completed, getting transferred to a different division. Whatever they are, they should be front of mind any time you interact in an organizational setting, even if you are at a meeting that has nothing to do with those objectives.
This is important because you have to put everything occurring in the present in the context of your long-term objectives. For example, pointing out just how stupid another department’s initiative is isn’t going to win you any friends and probably isn’t your problem to solve. See my post: How to survive a political battle in the workplace.
Who are the allies you need to achieve those objectives? –You should always know exactly who these people are all the time. These are the people you need to achieve your goals. They may include your boss and his peers, or various peers across divisions, or critical subordinates. The point is, you need to know who you need in your corner.
What are the objectives of these people? – Everyone you meet with will have certain objectives. The marketing guy may be concerned about making sure messaging is consistent on the new product. The woman from operations may care that the messaging is well timed to coincide with less busy hours. The finance person may care about budget or return on investment.
You need to know the objectives of these individuals (and anticipate their perspective in advance) so that you can help each of them get what they need. In doing so, you will get their desire to reciprocate and help you succeed.
How can you build influence those around you? – One way to build influence is by helping people reach their objectives (as outlined above). A second way is simply by making people feel valued.
I don’t mean that in the brown nosing sort of way, but more in terms of adding to and building on their points, or simply telling them they had a good idea (even outside the meeting). Making people feel valued is a great way to build alliances, and alliances are the name of the game.
How can you use questions to soften the blow? – Sometimes you just need to speak up against something because it is the right thing to do. The key variable is how you do it. Discretely worded questions are very often the best way to approach this.
For example, “It would be great if we could achieve that result, and I’m totally in favor of it, but I’m concerned that…” In this example, you are clearly aligned with creating a solution rather than stopping an initiative.
Contrast that with the heavy handed, “The problem with that idea is…” which will win you no friends.
Is now the time to show power/influence/anger? – There are times when you have to use anger/emotion/influence to make a point and to maintain status within a group. The key point is being selective about when you do so. While it is against pretty much everything you read in the leadership literature, people with power are very good at this.
As you read the above, you probably can’t help but think this is a bit like an episode of Survivor. In fact it is. Alliances are made for convenience, dissolved when it is helpful and people are double-crossed from time to time.
I have never worked in government politics, but my understanding is that this behavior is at its worst in Washington. Pete Peterson’s book “The Education of an American Dreamer” is a wonderful book and glimpse into this world.
For the rest of us, it is helpful to know that all organizations are political, and therefore keeping our personal objectives front of mind is essential. Sometimes that means holding back what you want to say, and instead saying what best serves your objectives.
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