Friday 28 October 2016

You need to start disagreeing with your boss. Here's how...

There is nothing guaranteed to dampen creativity at work than being surrounded by 'yes people'. Josephine Fairley explains why it's vital to challenge each other

Published 01/05/2015 | 02:30

Express yourself (or maybe not): Madonna doesn't take too kindly to suggestions about her art
Express yourself (or maybe not): Madonna doesn't take too kindly to suggestions about her art

My favourite Madonna story is the one where she allegedly arrived at a recording session the morning after a late night. A sound engineer proudly announced: "After you went last night, I did something with the track that I think you'll really like."

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To which Madonna, stone-faced, retorted: "This is NOT a democracy."

Cue mouse-like retreat to the mixing deck, presumably.

Well, what a shame. Like most creative people, of course Madonna would be entitled to incredibly strong views about her art. But anyone who surrounds themselves only with 'yes' people is missing a trick.

I react to being challenged in quite a different way: it spurs me to think faster and seek to make my project/venture/article better than it otherwise would have been.

Whether you're the boss with a 'yes people problem', or the employee who prefers to nod and follow orders - both scenarios are less rewarding than that which allows for disagreement.

(Probably less rewarding, in the case of a 'yes person': employers generally promote on the basis of drive and initiative.)

In this day and age, I think every company needs input, from every level. The world's moving so fast, what have we got to lose?

Interestingly, I find it's often the intern - or the person who most recently joined the organisation - who comes up with the best 'Why don't we do it like this?' idea, because the 'historic' way of doing things (the curse of so many companies) hasn't yet embedded itself in their DNA.

I'm all for creating a culture in which people know that they're not going to be labelled as crazy/off-the-wall for suggesting something - or for speaking up and sharing how they think things could be done better.

Not allowing that type of communication is the corporate equivalent of the five-year-old with their fingers in their ears going: 'I'm-not-listening-I'm-not-listening'.

And according to Zach Schaefer, PhD, US-based author of American Creativity: The Mind at Work, it's relatively simple to start to foster a culture in which team members don't feel they're going to be shot down with a flame-thrower for weighing in with their sixpence worth.

"Simply acknowledging the fact that it's okay to ask questions, it's okay to disagree and push back, is a great first step," he says.

Going beyond that, Schaefer recommends making contributions mandatory - for instance, requiring that everyone asks two questions at a meeting.

As a leader, this encourages your team to challenge ideas in a constructive way. As an employee, it encourages positive disruption in the workplace - so often the key to getting things done and making lasting changes to office culture in other ways. If you know your boss is likely to support you in suggesting shifts to how things are done, it can open the door to innovation in the workplace.

That's how 'intrapreneurs' - those who instigate change inside a company - are born.

So how to get there? What if you're afraid to speak up and not sure your boss will be supportive?

Sometimes it's shyness, sometimes fear of being told you're 'wrong' (and therefore ritually humiliated in front of your team), but very often, it's because you're unsure of your ground.

If you generally 'wing' a meeting, scanning the agenda paperwork when you arrive in the hope nobody'll notice you didn't do your homework, or secretly checking Facebook under the board table because you're bored, you're quite likely to sit there nodding because you're not sufficiently up to speed.

Look in the mirror. Does that make you great promotional material? No. If you bone up on what's being discussed beforehand, you're far more likely to have the confidence to make suggestions and weigh in.

Apply the two-question rule to yourself.

Tell yourself that by the end of the meeting, you'll have asked at least two things or made two proposals or suggestions. If they're shot down in flames, so be it - but don't let it stop you. You're helping to make an idea or project better, which is good for the business (and also, almost certainly, good for you).

At the start of a career, I acknowledge it's most definitely scary to put your hand up and ask a question - because nobody knows that better than me.

At the start of my writing career, at a press conference for Yul Brynner (the bald-headed star of film The King and I), I had been commanded as a 'baby' journalist by my quite scary editor to come back with the answer to a single question: 'Is it true that bald men are sexier?'

I had to ask this in front of 200 other journalists, in the London Palladium auditorium.

In terms of being thrown in at the question-posing deep end, it was a fantastic baptism by fire. I got my answer - and serious kudos from my boss.

I figured that if I could ask a famous actor that in front of a crowd of my peers - and the earth did not open up and swallow me - then I could ask anyone anything. Including my boss.

Since then, mine is often the first hand up in any room, aware that someone has got to be the ice-breaker.

I figure: I'm doing everyone a favour.

Now, if only Madonna would agree with me.

Irish Independent

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