Monday, January 17, 2011

Don’t Take Yes for an Answer: The Power of Cultivating Collaborative Leadership

by Miki Kashtan

Nick (not his real name), CEO of a privately owned company, identified listening to others as one key area of learning for him. As we explored this challenge, we soon realized that truly opening to hearing others would require overcoming a habit of distancing and separating himself from people whom he perceived to be different. I offered him one of my personal practices: looking for 3-5 things I have in common with someone I experience as different and separate from me. Nick immediately thought of Dick Cheney as an exception, someone with whom he really didn’t have anything in common. I challenged him on this belief, and he succeeded in identifying several qualities they shared, the last of which was this statement: “We both like power.” What did power mean to Nick? Without any hesitation he said: “When you have power you rarely hear ‘no.’”

“Yes” as a Resource for Power
I define power simply as the capacity to mobilize resources to meet needs. One of the resources that people in power have is other people’s reluctance to say “no.” That’s where my perspective intersects with Nick’s. If someone is the boss, there is every reason for others to say “yes,” ranging from fear of consequences to genuine interest in supporting the boss’s vision. Hearing mostly “yes” provides enormous ease for those in power. I can see the appeal of being able to make things happen.

The Cost of Too Much “Yes”
Despite the appeal, in my own small sphere of influence I have been cultivating the practice of questioning people’s “yes” and encouraging others to say “no” to me. I have been recommending this practice to anyone in a position of power.

Considering the ease and apparent efficiency of people’s willingness to go along with the choices of the person in power, why would I recommend the often arduous practice of challenging the “yes?” What gets lost when the option of “no” is less accessible to people? In particular, is there any way in which the effectiveness of the person on top gets compromised? What is the significance of encouraging “no” for the functioning of the whole?

A work culture that operates on the assumption of “yes” compromises the deeper power of people at the top. Here’s why. Leaders need some amount of dissent for creativity and fresh thinking. Without hearing the truth about the true human cost of a path of action leaders lack critical feedback for making informed choices. Agreements based on fear of consequences are less authentic. When people don’t feel free to say “no” they are less likely to give of themselves fully and take ownership of the work they do.

Challenging the “Yes” Supports Organizations
When we recognize that we lose something when someone does something just because we have power, we can create a radically different work environment. As managers, when we honor people’s limits and let them know we care about their wellbeing, we unleash a level of goodwill that permeates all relationships within the group. When we express interest in people’s perspectives and experience, we contribute to creative relationships in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. When we include others’ concerns about decision we want to make, we increase ownership of the whole and responsibility for a shared outcome. When we are open to changing our mind in order to integrate feedback from others, we send a message that everyone is significant for the whole, and thereby contribute to much deeper buy-in. The result is not only more satisfaction. Empowering people leads to more distributed innovation, scalability, and – even if it may be surprising – more productivity.     

Steps toward a Collaborative Form of Leadership
What does leadership mean within such an environment? What do these principles look like in practice? What can you do today to open the door for new possibilities in your relationships with those you lead? Instead of following the impulse to control and direct everything, focus on providing the vision, the inspiration, and the creative edge that galvanize people’s capacity to contribute. You can encourage everyone to continually learn and adapt to changing conditions. You can guide the decision-making process to increase synergy and maximize everyone’s contribution. You can support people in finding their true potential and taking risks knowing they will be supported. Ultimately, collaborative leadership, at its best, is a way to restore meaning and humanity to our work life, for leaders as well as for everyone else.

If you work in or with an organization, and you want to learn more about collaborative leadership, you may want to explore the MCR full yearlong program starting this coming May, and the MCR conference in March. If you are curious, you can get answers to all your questions in one of the informational calls we have lined up (the next one is January 18th).