We often defer to the boss’s suggestions, even if we disagree with an idea or, worse, think the idea is moronic. We withhold our objections to these “ridiculous ideas” for obvious reasons: We want to be polite and nice and continue making the house payment. But deference plagues organizations, saps effectiveness, stalls success, and erodes resources. While some managers are blind to the deference disease, others are desperately seeking an antidote.
Once the boss of a company I was working for called and asked if it would be okay if he took home the “wood scraps” to use for fireplace kindling.
Two hours later I received a phone call from the boss’s wife thanking me for the “lovely wood” that was delivered to her home. As the boss’s request reached the people assigned to pick up the scrap, the request was transformed into a command. So, instead of sending over discarded scrap wood, employees cut expensive oak planks to size, banded the wood, and transported it to the boss’s home. Then they complained the boss was misusing resources. The boss had no idea this was going on.
Four Clues to Recognize Deference
People often complain about deference to authority, in fact, it comes up in almost every survey. Here are four cues to help you recognize deference, as well as some dos and don’ts for dealing with it.
Cue #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, “How can I let the boss know I’m not keen on this idea?” He pauses to think. Of course, his brain is moving at light speed as he conjures a script. Nevertheless, there is a two-second pause as he 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. My bet is he’s thinking of a way to let me down gently.”
DON’T: If you’re like most people, you desperately want your idea to be implemented, so you are 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.
Cue #2: Faint praise should hit you like a truck.
Following the brief pause the other person chokes out a response. Since he’s worried about the horrific things that might happen if he disagrees, he consents to your whacked-out suggestions—but woefully. He comes back with something like: “I don’t know,” (he pauses again while looking distressed) “I guess your idea might work.” This, of course, is code for: “Are you nuts? Your idea will crash.”
DO: The savvy individual would read the concern reflected in the pause and pay attention to the tentative language (“might,” “maybe,” “perhaps”). This tepid approval is bogus and means the person is afraid to speak his opposing views. The most obvious hint the person has serious doubts is his halted delivery and pathetic look of distress.
DON’T: You’re so hyped on the sheer genius of your idea you pay no heed to tentative language, pregnant pauses, or expressions of distress. 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 with both his hands, 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. So, you read any ambiguous clues as signs of approval.
Cue #3: 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 move in for the close. At this point, your direct report realizes his subtle hints have gone unnoticed and he’ll have to say something clear, forceful, and out loud. So he says: “Actually, I’m a bit worried about your plan. I can see you’re 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. Read these words as a clue to probe for more detail. After all, the person in a position of less authority took 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: By this point, 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. What you’re really saying is you’ve made your mind up and if the other person doesn’t agree, you’ll keep serving up arguments until he crumbles. And, oh yes—did you forget to mention—you are the boss, right?
Cue #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 dart wildly as he looks for an exit, sweat forms on his forehead, and he prepares for a full frontal attack. 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. Savvy individuals take one look at the fear in the other person’s eyes and realize they have done something to create this unfavorable reaction. They also know that it now falls on them to restore 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 kill mindless deference) you might say: “I don’t want to force my view on you. I really want to come up with an idea that serves us all well. My plan might cause problems with your team, 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. You must fight your tendency to increase your 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.
As you enter a high-stakes conversation with a subordinate, you’ll likely offer up a hefty load of deference unless you create safety. And since others are likely to avoid disagreeing with you directly and openly, you’ll have to pay close attention to subtle signs.
First, watch for each pause. Hesitancy will be your first warning. If a pause is followed by a visible drop in confidence and half-hearted support, assume others have differing views but are holding back. Invite their opposing views. Explain that you want to hear all sides.
If the other person finally suggests an opposing view, embrace the information. Don’t attack it. You can make your points later. 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 details.
If you see fear in others’ eyes, take this as a cue not to step up your debate tactics, but to step out of the conversation and restore safety.
Don’t pound your point home. Instead, establish mutual purpose. Share your good intentions. Make it safe for others to speak openly and honestly
Recommended Reading on Dealing with Deference