Be grateful when your staff disagree with you

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 July, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 July, 1993, 12:00am

THE chief executive officer of a mid-sized company recently described a situation to me that probably sends a tremor of recognition into the heart of any entrepreneur.

He had just come out of an all-day internal meeting that was frighteningly calm and free of rancour. I remember he specifically used the word ''frightening'' because he couldn't help thinking that some of the people in the room surely must have disagreedwith the decisions made in the meeting but were unwilling or afraid to say so.

He thought it was a scary situation and wondered what he could do to encourage a little more dissent and free-wheeling debate.

He was right to be worried. I'd much rather have a company where everyone disagreed some of the time than a company where everyone agreed all the time. Total agreement is not healthy. Even the Japanese, who are obsessed with building consensus among co-workers, arrive at that harmony only through a lively (but dignified) process of debate and disagreement.

A wise man once told me his biggest fear as a boss was not knowing who the ''yes men'' were on his staff and who would tell him the unvarnished truth.

''The day I can't tell the difference is the day I'm finished,'' he said.

So he would periodically toss out outrageous opinions designed to test the character of his associates.

He would challenge a subordinate's ideas, even if he privately agreed with them, saying. ''You don't know what you're talking about!'' If the subordinate stood his ground, that told him something positive about him. If he backed down, that told him something else.

''It's the Emperor's Clothes syndrome,'' he said. ''I know there are people who think I'm out of my mind for some of the things I say. But when I'm wrong I want people to tell me so.'' If you want your people to be a little more combative with each other, you may have to throw the first few punches.

When the nine US Supreme Court Justices vote 6-3 on a case, they deliver their verdict in a majority opinion which decides the case, but also publish the opinions of the three dissenters.

Legal scholars will tell you some of the most interesting ideas can be found in the dissenting opinions.

Some companies use a variation of this system to encourage debate and air out wild ideas.

At Motorola, for example, each employee is entitled to file a ''minority report'' if he feels his ideas aren't being given a fair shake.

These reports aren't simply filed away or smothered by the employee's boss.

On the contrary, they are reviewed by the boss' superior and openly discussed.

Taking any sort of vindictive action against the author of a ''minority report'' is considered cowardly.

I'm not sure if this system can work at every company. You certainly don't want to create a culture where people are obsessed with putting every thought in writing and entering it into some official record.

But if you want healthy disagreement, you have to give people a way to be heard and you have to assure them that they won't be punished for being different. The dissenting opinion seems to fit the bill.

THE power to delegate is perhaps the greatest time-management tool an executive has.

Nothing frees your schedule more efficiently than being able to remove yourself from time-consuming tasks that ought to be handled by the people who work for you.

In the business world, where hierarchies and chains of command are clearly defined, you'd think that delegating would be a simple procedure: The boss commands, the employees obey.

But it doesn't work that way.

Bosses have a maddening habit of delegating too selectively; they delegate what they want to, not what they should.

They hold on to the jobs they like, which usually come with a high recognition factor or require travel to exotic locales.

They delegate everything else - the distasteful tasks, the weekend rush jobs, the doomed projects that will stain their spotless record.

Subordinates aren't totally blameless in this time-management tango. Even when you delegate for all the right reasons, you have to be sensitive to psychological components that can backfire on you.

Employees with ''Not Invented Here'' syndrome, for example, have an uncanny ability to delegate assignments back to you. They resist any idea that's not their own and want all the credit for themselves.

Misfires like this happen all the time in business, sometimes in very subtle ways.

I was recently in a discussion with a long-time friend, the CEO of a thriving company, during which the two of us agreed that we should go ahead with a marketing project.

The CEO suggested that someone in our organisation get together with his marketing vice-president and work out the details.

There was nothing particularly distasteful about this assignment - except for the fact that it was dreamed up by the CEO and me and delegated down the chain of command.

The two subordinates involved, harbouring resentments I have yet to fathom, found a way to scuttle the project.

They didn't return each other's phone calls and argued over petty details. Eventually, my associate turned the project back to me, saying: ''I've taken this as far as I can.'' In effect, he was telling me that I was wrong about the CEO, that I had overestimated my influence with my friend, and challenging me to get it done myself.

This isn't exactly the time-saving strategy I had in mind. If it happens five times in a row, my opinion of that executive would drop drastically.

Whenever you delegate something, keep in mind that it may come back to haunt you. If your subordinates continually bounce back their assignments to you, you will be their slave, not their master.