Our HBS General Management class had just completed a series of cases about decision-making processes. In these cases, time and time again the leader or team had made poor decisions with often devastating results. The class had successfully identified several root causes in each case, but a common thread in the cases was that regardless of the process, it had failed to yield a good decision because the collective wisdom of the group had not been effectively revealed and used.
A student approached me after class. “Here’s the problem,” she said. “We may all hope to be General Managers some day, but very soon we will be in less senior roles. We won’t be the leader, deciding on the process or engaging the team through the process. So, how can we speak up effectively and safely, when we have a difficult message that the leaders have not thought about or, worse, do not want to hear?”
This is a common challenge and is not confined to early-career professionals. Mastering the process and art of dissent is a vital skill for anyone working in a group setting. Effectiveness is often determined by when and how you make your views known. Too often individuals blurt out an ill-formed comment that lacks in logic, facts, or clarity and that is powered by an excess of emotion and alarm. The message is lost in the noise.
Admittedly, this is an extreme example, but in the heat of the moment things can go awry. As with most professional challenges, thinking about the problem in a structured way can help.
Let’s break the challenge into its constituent parts. Each element can be considered, understood, and appropriately mastered for the situation at hand. It’s probably not so useful in a do-or-die emergency situation, but hopefully you will not see that circumstance. In those cases, intuition and gut-based judgment will take over. For the more normal, non-emergency circumstance, five elements are in the mix:
- What is the context and decision process?
- What is the right time to comment/advocate?
- Who are likely allies or opponents and what are their views and power base?
- What phrasing or message will be most impactful, considering both words and emotional content?
- What follow-up strategy is needed?
Understanding context and the decision process in use should not be too difficult but is often overlooked. In a sense these are the “rules” for how things will go. How close to making the call is the group? What is the history and culture of the process? How important is the outcome and to whom? What is the actual decision process being used and how open is the group to dissent historically? How does the group, and particularly the boss, like to consume information?
Someone said timing is everything in life and, when trying to change the course of a decision, this is certainly true. There are times when an intervention is too early and times when it is too late. Knowing the context and process helps, but there is also art here. Discussion processes can be organic with discussion ebbing and flowing. There are no hard-and-fast rules. When should you take your shot? Too early, your message evaporates in the noise or, worse, you seem brash. Too late or too cautious, the moment passes with no impact. Listen closely! Your experience, the advice of others, and good instincts will all inform your timing.
Creating allies ahead of time and knowing who in the room they might be helps. Equally important is understanding who is in opposition, as well as their logic and history. Without a working understanding of the opponent’s view you will likely not be effective in the moment in answering questions and building your case. If you are in a meeting and do not have a clue on this subject, you are lost. Surprising your boss might happen, but is not recommended. Convincing influencers ahead of time and getting advice is never a bad idea. You might find your boss or other more powerful allies can be more effective advocates for the idea than you. You can support his or her position with analysis and important facts.
How to get the message across is worth real reflection and preparation. What not to do? Use too much emotional heat, be disrespectful or patronizing to others in any way, give a long-winded spiel, or try to talk over others as we see in TV “debates." It is never a good idea and can be fatal to do anything remotely unethical (i.e. pack facts, misstate, exaggerate).
Make your message logical, fact-based, succinct, genuinely respectful of uncertainties and others’ opinions, and be able to answer the obvious questions or objections. Facts and analytics are important if they bear on your logic and are available. State your views with confidence and clarity in an even tone and do not get rattled or flustered. Again, experience will help and observe and learn from others who seem particularly effective.
Follow-up also counts. At an extreme, if you feel conviction that the group is making a decision that will have truly dire consequences, you may decide that you must share your views outside the work group. In the absolute extreme, you may need to go to the CEO or even the board. This would be a momentous decision that is rare in practice, but know it could be the right decision. Normally, your follow-up is much less dramatic but should be considered. Depending on your conviction, you might want another shot. Again, get your boss’ advice but be prepared to respectfully and thoughtfully appeal. All the elements discussed above are still in play and need to be considered. Persistence can pay off as long as you develop allies, the logic and facts supporting the position are clear and persuasive, your credibility is solid, and you find a time, place, and way for the decision makers to hear. Developing the skill of honest and effective advocacy is a journey but starts with understanding and mastering the basics.