January 18, 2018

How direct can we / should we / must we be?

Mixed group of peopleIt depends, of course…

…on the situation, our formal role within it (if any), our personal power or authority in the specific circumstances, the personalities of other people involved, and what we want or need to achieve.

If our aim is to make a difference in a professional situation, then we may well need to be more direct than would generally be considered socially conventional.

Recently, I’ve been reflecting on just how much that’s true—in my experience anyway. I’ve found I’ve benefited from being more challenging, as has the work, even though it can feel really uncomfortable to be so direct. Sometimes that’s what’s needed though.

Yes, of course…

We need to build a relationship, and that may require some caution and patience, but if that’s all we do, we probably won’t pass the “so what?” test. We might have to wait till next time for that. And the trouble is there might not be a next time.

Obviously, it helps if we can build trust and a strong relationship quickly—and, naturally, there are skills to that—and our reputation helps. Then we’ve more chance of success when we move into a more challenging part of the conversation.

But we do need to move into that more direct phase… if we want an outcome anyway.

How direct do you choose to be? Is that direct enough? Or sometimes too much?

There’s no single right answer here, but it’s worth thinking about.

If you’re the leader…

Business People in a Board MeetingYou created everything around you. (You are the person with authority and influence, after all.)

If you don’t like it, either you’ve not led very well, or you’re not actually the leader.

Which is it?

Accurately discerning responsibility and authority

Three senior managers talkingEvents of last week—featuring, in particular, some troubles my son is having with another boy on his school bus—showed just how important it is to discern accurately who is best-placed to take which action: Us as parents, the bus driver, the parents of the other boy, or the school staff.

I believe, a lot of the time, we get this wrong. We take actions or say things which aren’t really for us to take. They’re somebody else’s piece of the puzzle. We could suggest they might choose to take a particular action, but we need to signal it’s their choice, when truly it is.

That way, our influence is maximised.

Over-reaching our authority, and telling other people what to do, or doing their job for them undermines our influence.

Much better to have the patience to do our bit, and let other people do theirs, using our influence to guide. If we give them their space, there’s a better chance they’ll accept our influence and do what we hoped for in the first place.

It’s all about the egos, as usual.

Sounds pretty obvious, I suppose. But is it common practice?

Accurately discerning who has responsibility and who has authority is worth the effort—as is designing the system right, when we have that role.

In short, as we might have said to the other family involved: You parent your son, and we’ll parent ours.

Applies to work situations too, of course.

Is it attractive to admit a weakness?

Image of David OgilvyThere something appealing about a person who is clear about what they’re good at and what they’re not so good at.

For example…

Watching a film of David Ogilvy, sometimes referred to as “the Father of Advertising,” it’s striking how disarming he is when he says he never had much success with the medium of television. His achievements—and they were notable—were primarily in print advertising. We tend to listen all the more to what he has to say.

Somehow, admitting a weakness and declaring the limits of our knowledge makes us seem more authoritative on our chosen territory—that subject on which we do have experience and learning to share.

We’re not talking about false modesty here, just an accurate exposition of what we know and what we don’t know.

And a signal that we don’t know everything—far from it, just a relatively narrow field.

What about you?

What’s your response to someone admitting the limits to their knowledge? Does it strengthen their appeal for you?


Is it a path you go down yourself when offering your expertise?

Do you know enough to not know?

Woman reflectingHow much knowledge do you need to have before it feels OK to say you don’t know?

Seems like a paradox, doesn’t it?

If we know quite a bit about something, we probably have a good idea just how much we don’t know. And we have some authority.

If we don’t know that much, often it seems we need to state what we do know—to gain credibility, mostly.

So it can seem a wise thing when we don’t know.

That may mean we have quite a bit of knowledge.

…and are worth consulting.

Corporate organisations—more mindful of the human being or less?

Executives listening to a presentationWe seem to live in divergent times…

On the one hand, corporate organisations are becoming more procedural, more numbers-driven, more top-down in their approach. (That’s a generalisation of course, and perhaps not even an accurate one, and there are certainly notable exceptions.)

At the same time, as individuals, we seem to be becoming ever more aware of the need to be more human, more connected, and more mindful of our interdependence.

It seems a rather obvious dichotomy.

And yet…

Many of the large organisations are doing what they do on our behalf, one way or another. (For example, even the head of the Church of England finds to his annoyance that his organisation has an indirect interest in a financial operation he has just come out against.)

Organisational leaders, despite their own personal humanity, seem rather powerless to change the rules.

The holding of formal authority can sometimes be a constraint rather than an opportunity.

What do you think? Are our organisations increasingly divergent from us as human beings? If so, what’s the answer? What is the evolution we need and from where will it be led?

What is the key to balancing organisational effectiveness and efficiency with common humanity?

Or perhaps you think the premise is mistaken and our organisations are doing everything we need them to do.

Constrained or radical?

Tall buildings in LondonIf you’re on the inside, it can be hard to stimulate change in the wider system because although you have some explicit authority, you’re constrained by your stakeholders’ expectations. We can’t really look to you to show the way on a wider front.

If you’re on the outside, it can be hard to stimulate change because although you’re not constrained, you don’t have authority.

But you do have the chance to be radical.

And those on the inside need those on the outside to be radical, because the stakeholders are influenced.

And then those on the inside can do something different because they have authority.

And then the system can change.