Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
In my last article, I suggested that employees frequently defer to their boss’s suggestions even if they disagree with an idea or, worse still, if they think the idea is positively moronic. Employees withhold their objections to these ridiculous ideas for obvious reasons. They want to be polite. They try their best to be nice. And then, of course, there’s the ever-popular reason: they want to continue making their house payments.
To show how this insane transformation might happen, let me share a personal experience. In this example, the big boss in the corner office of the company I was working for at the time called and asked if it would be okay if he took home the wood scraps lying outside the carpenters’ shop. Winter was coming on and he wanted to use the scraps for fireplace kindling.
Two hours later I received a phone call from the boss’s wife thanking me for the lovely wood that was just delivered to her home. How did loose scrap transmute into lovely wood? As the big boss’s request traveled down the chain of command to the employees who were supposed to pick up the scrap, the tentative request was first distorted into a dumb idea and then transformed into a command. At the insistence of their immediate supervisor, employees measured the boss’s fireplace, and instead of sending over the discarded scrap wood, cut expensive oak planks to size, banded the wood, and transported it to the boss’s home. That winter the boss burned over two thousand dollars worth of lumber.
As you might suspect, the people who actually cut up the expensive planks complained that the boss was misusing resources and bad-mouthed him behind his back. The boss had no idea any of this was going on. He had merely asked if he could pick up the scrap and was thrilled with the wood.
My partners and I observe deference to authority in virtually every company we study, people continue to complain about it, and it comes up big in almost every corporate survey we administer.
With this in mind, here are four cues to help you recognize deference, as well as some dos and don’ts for dealing with it.
1. A Pause Should Give You Pause. You’ve just shared an idea with a direct report who thinks it’s sort of stupid, but he doesn’t want to hurt your feelings or get canned. So he thinks, “Hmm, how can I let the boss know that I’m not all that keen on this idea?” He pauses to think of exactly what to say. Of course, his brain is moving at light speed as he conjures a script that’ll save his hide, so it’s not as if there’s a five minute break in the flow. Nevertheless, there is a two-second pause as your nervous direct report searches for just the right words.
DO: Now, if you’re a caring, sensitive, high self-monitor, you immediately recognize the pause as a warning sign. You think to yourself, “Oh oh, there’s a pause. This brief gap in the conversation actually means something. My bet is that he’s thinking of a way to let me down gently.”
DON’T: On the other hand, if you’re like most people, you desperately want your idea to be implemented, so you’re not looking for signs of disapproval. You’re looking to make your argument quickly, articulately, and with as much enthusiasm as possible. So you completely miss the two-second pause and don’t back off one iota.
2. Faint Praise Should Hit You Like a Truck. Immediately following the brief pause the other person chokes out a response. Since he’s worried about the horrific things that might happen to him if he disagrees with you, he agrees with your whacked-out suggestions—but oh-so woefully. He comes back with something like: “I don’t know,” (he pauses once again while looking distressed) “I guess your idea might maybe work. Perhaps.” This, of course, is code for: “Are you nuts? Your idea will crash like a Zamboni at the Daytona 500.”
DO: Once again the savvy individual would read the concern reflected in the new and added pause and pay special attention to the tentative language the frightened subordinate chose (“might,” “maybe,” “perhaps”). This tepid statement of approval is obviously bogus and means that the other person is afraid to speak his opposing views. Of course the most obvious hint that the person has serious doubts is reflected in his halted delivery and pathetic look of distress.
DON’T: Unfortunately, you’re so hyped on the sheer genius of your idea that you’re paying no heed to tentative language, pregnant pauses, or expressions of distress. Subtlety is lost on you. In fact, in order for you to pick up on the vibe that your direct report wants to express a concern, he will have to fire off a flare, grab you head with both his hands, stare you in the face, and shout: “Listen up, I have real concerns here! Do you hear me? Real concerns!” After all, you’re excited about your idea and are looking for people to agree with you. Consequently, you read any ambiguous clues as signs of approval.
3. Actual Words of Concern Should Be a Signal to Probe, Not to Defend. As the conversation continues, you take your subordinate’s lukewarm response as genuine acceptance and are now moving in for the close. You’re actually trying to set a follow-up time. At this point your direct report realizes that his subtle hints have gone unnoticed by the social moron he’s dealing with and that he’s going to have to say something clear, forceful, and out loud. So he says: “Actually, I’m a bit worried about your plan. I can see that you’re really excited about this idea and that you’ve given it a lot of thought, but I’m wondering if . . .”
DO: Note your subordinate’s clever words. He’s acknowledged your excitement, given you credit for thinking about your plan, and only tentatively shared his opposing views. It’s a textbook response tailored to catch your attention without making you defensive. The savvy person would read these well-spoken words as a clue to probe for more detail. After all, the person in a position of less authority has taken a risk and needs to be rewarded. At this point it makes sense to stop and thank him for his candor and seek more information.
DON’T: Unfortunately, if you’re like most of us, by this point in the conversation you’re completely committed to your idea and aren’t interested in hearing objections—no matter how well stated—so you don’t listen. Instead, you move from being enthusiastic to being argumentative. And no matter your words, what you’re really saying is that you’ve made your mind up and if the other person doesn’t agree with you you’ll keep serving up arguments until he eventually crumbles. And, oh yes—did you forget to mention—you are the boss, right?
4. Fear Should Cause You to Look at Yourself, Not to Increase Your Attack. As you step up your debate tactics, the other person starts to look frightened. His eyes are darting wildly as he looks for an exit, sweat may be forming on his forehead, and he’s preparing for a full frontal attack. And why wouldn’t he be preparing for an assault? He has this really bad idea he has to contend with, his boss is turning up the heat, and he doesn’t know what to say or do.
Once again, savvy individuals take one look at the fear in the other person’s eyes and realize that they have probably done something to create this unfavorable reaction. They also understand that it now falls on them to restore safety to the conversation. They’re in a position of power, they’ve probably caused the fear (even if they’ve been on their best behavior), and they’ll have to fix it.
DO: To restore safety (and simultaneously kill mindless deference) a skilled person would say something like: “I don’t want to force my view on you. I was just spit balling with this idea. What I really want is to come up with an idea that serves us all well. My guess is that my existing plan might cause problems with your team’s quality process and I’d love to hear any objections you might have.”
Notice how these words help restore safety by establishing mutual purpose, softening your position, inviting differing opinions, and playing devil’s advocate. This doesn’t come naturally. In fact, it requires a great deal of genetic undoing. You must fight thousands of years of programming that propels humans to increase their attack at the first sign of fear. If you want to nip deference in the bud, you have to find a way to create safety. It may look and feel unnatural to make it safe in the face of fear, but it’s exactly the right thing to do and smart people do it all the time.
When it comes to deference to authority, take the lead from the best. Assume that as you enter every high-stakes conversation with a subordinate there’s a good chance you’ll be offered up a hefty load of deference unless you take care to create safety. And since others are likely to feel nervous about disagreeing with you directly and openly, you’ll have to pay close attention to subtle signs.
First, watch for each pause as if it were your best friend. Hesitancy will be your first warning signal. If a pause is followed by a visible drop in confidence and half-hearted support, assume that others have differing views but are holding back. Invite their opposing views. Explain that you want to hear all sides. Play devil’s advocate.
If the other person finally musters the courage to tentatively suggest an opposing view, embrace the information, don’t attack it. You can make your points later on in the discussion. For now, encourage others to clarify their opinions. Value criticism—it’s your best tool for continuous improvement. Thank the other person for his or her candor and ask for more details.
Finally, if you see fear in others’ eyes, take this as a cue not to step up your debate tactics, but as a cue to step out of the conversation and restore safety. Fight your deep-seated drive to pound your point home. Instead, establish mutual purpose. Share your good intentions. Make it safe for others to speak openly and honestly.
And then come to work in my company—as my boss. I’d love to report to a person who actually does stuff like this.