As a leader, you probably know that you should be encouraging constructive criticism from your team. This can be easier said than done, especially in large group settings, where you may feel anxiety about saying the wrong thing, coming across as weak, or as mean.
Caution! Your ego is on the scene and it’s at odds with all the other egos in the room. What do you all have in common with one another? Fear. The sooner you recognize when fear has entered the room, the more quickly you can move through the fear and get to the conversation that needs to be had.
Here are three common forms of public pushback and strategies to manage the fear beneath them so that you can finally have the open dialog you want for your team.
1) SMARTEST ONE IN THE ROOM
We’ve all been there: a meeting where a contentious topic is raised and that one person raises their hand with a searing question. The question is logical and smart.
His tone? “Good luck, but you are no match for my intellect. I can’t wait to see what predictable garbage comes out of your mouth so I can refute it.”
This tendency can be most difficult for those of us with a long, successful career of, ourselves, being the Smartest One In The Room. If this is you, you are apt to debate to the death.
The rest of the group? Get (un)comfortable, because this could take a while.
Their fear: If they don’t contribute intellectually and at the highest level, they are not valuable.
Your fear: The same. (You heard me. I didn’t say this would be pretty.)
Your Strategy: You know what Smartest One In The Room is? Smart. So give them that. Do not waste your time outsmarting Smartest One In The Room. They probably have a good point, or at least, have considered the topic more than the average person. But for the most challenging business questions, we leaders know that there is no one “Right Answer”. No one person gets to be the owner of the Truth–not you, not me, and not the Smartest One In The Room. Look at things from a different perspective, and a different answer is always available, for all of us. So, avoid the showdown, give them a partial win, and then show them why there’s room for another perspective.
“You may be right about x. Of course, this is a complex issue and there are multiple ways to look at it, like…”
2) NEGATIVE NELLY
With Smartest One In The Room, you don’t know what they’re going to say but you know it’s going to be scathing. Negative Nelly, on the other hand, is well named because she sure likes to beat a dead horse. She has come to the meeting equipped with some harsh words. The good news is, you could hear them coming out of her mouth while you were writing your presentation last night. So, the advantage here is that you get to prepare yourself.
Their fear: Most likely it is a fear of the unknown, repeating mistakes, and change in general.
Your fear: That this person contaminates the group with their negative attitude. More deeply and basically, it is fear of conflict or that you will find yourself incapable of persuading this person to see things differently.
Your Strategy: If the point raised by Nelly is well-tread ground for your team, and you have responded to it before, you could start a conversation by saying “I feel as though we have covered this before, but maybe not sufficiently. What feels unresolved from your perspective?” Or “This is a complex topic and I’d like to get to the bottom of the issue. What do you think this might really be about?”
Get to the root fear that is blocking this person from accepting the path forward so that you can acknowledge that fear. Show caring for what is really on this person’s mind, rather than circling the surface issue that keeps coming up.
3) THE PASSIVE-AGGRESSIVE ONE
This may be the toughest challenge of all because this person is silent in the meeting, but at the water cooler, it is a different story. And potentially, this is the most damaging to productivity and morale. There is just something contagious about the energy behind this sort of behavior.
Their fear: Conflict, public embarrassment.
Your fear: Loss of control of the narrative, which, in this case, is growing like a weed in corners you cannot easily reach.
Your Strategy: if you are aware of what the narrative is for this person or group of people, and no one raises the concern in the meeting, you can bring it up yourself. “Some of you might be feeling anxious about this change. Raise your hand if you have felt this way before.” With this strategy, you offer people the opportunity to say they have had a passing thought, with less personal risk to them. It feels safer to have the fleeting thought that the company’s strategy is deeply flawed than to be viewed as a complete opponent of it.
If you’re not sure what the criticism is, you can ask for it in a way that isn’t too risky. “What are you concerned we might be missing?”
Remember, the purpose of these strategies is not to put an end to dissenting views. It is to move the conversation forward and develop trust with your team. If you don’t have what you need to move the conversation forward in. a thoughtful way, don’t. Just accept the comment with gratitude and say that you will take it into consideration. Then, and most importantly of all, do just that. Come back to the discussion in future meetings as things progress and show your team that you don’t run away from tough topics or honest conversation, and you do not want them to, either.
Need help turning pushback into healthy dialog?
Wendy Hultmark is a certified professional coach who helps executive women lead their teams through change and love the journey.