If you have ever had a conversation with parents-to-be prior to them actually becoming parents, you have probably heard assertions like:
“My kids will only have 30 minutes of screen time each week.”
“We will only eat organic, locally-sourced food in our house.”
“I will never yell at my child… We will only have calm and reasonable discussions.”
My pre-parenting resolution was to never use, “because I said so,” as a sufficient response to my child’s inquisitive nature.
I am no super mom and I was not blessed with any extraordinary (ok, not even ordinary) gifts of patience. So, like nearly every other parent-to-be who has made such bold claims about how they would be as a parent, my resolve did not last long after my son became verbal.
Today, an unfortunately too common conversation in our house might escalate quickly from “Isn’t today a great day to make healthy choices and do something other than watch a show?” to “Get off the iPad, put on your shoes to go outside, and stop eating those chips. Seriously! Put. On. Your. Shoes!” with some banter exchanged before I summarily dismiss my child’s curiosity over why we value some choices over others a firm, “Because I said so!”
Because I said so.
The dreaded response I had committed not to make.
I deeply admire the human characteristic of curiosity and thought it would come easily to me to encourage this in my child. I want to raise someone who aggressively seeks to understand the world and is capable of discerning the difference between doing what is right and doing what he is told. I want him to know his personal values and to apply them daily, equipped with a belief system that prepares him to stand up for himself and what he knows is right.
As a parent, I struggle to find the right words for conversations that will leave my son feeling confident about the actions he might take when his values tell him to do one thing and someone in authority tells him to do another. There is some risk in encouraging a child to question authority (especially when I happen to be that person in authority). I want him to thoughtfully challenge what he hears and sees, but I do not want him to be challenging.
There are times when it feels like those two things cannot co-exist.
One of my favorite children’s stories—with a moral I return to time and again—is The Emperor’s New Clothes. In it, the title character is excessively concerned about how things appear. In order to be the most admired and well-dressed in all the land, he hires two men to make his newest costume. The clothing designers convince him they have made the most beautiful and elaborate garments, only visible to those who are of high intellectual capacity and fit to associate with the emperor. Of course, these clothes are not invisible; they simply do not exist. Even though no person can see the clothes, they praise the emperor’s beautiful garments, fearful of the consequences that may come from speaking what they know to be true. Eventually, a child speaks up. He is the only one willing to state what is wrong, even though everyone else has seen it, too.
When I heard this story, I always wondered what role I would play. Would I be the bold child, the acquiescent follower, or the clueless emperor? Many people similarly consider what role they would have played in more significant ethical dilemmas. What would they have done in Nazi Germany, during the U.S. history of Japanese internment camps, or the Civil Rights movement when their values and the laws might not have aligned?
People try to guess what they would do in specific circumstances, but the basic question is really this: If I am forced to choose between blindly following a leader or living according to my personal values, what choice will I make? Will I quietly comply with authority or will I speak my own truth?
As a manager, you do not have to be authoritarian for the employees you serve to see you as a powerful person of authority. Simply because of position, even the words of leaders who are humble, collaborative, and soft-spoken are often taken as definitive or prescriptive. In order to build a team that will stop you from making foolish choices like the Emperor, leaders must be disciplined in cultivating and rewarding curiosity.
In the short term, it won’t always be efficient. Energy must be directed toward an end that is much longer-term than completing the task at hand, but the job of the leader is about more than getting things done today. Leaders are responsible for maximizing the resources they are entrusted with– none more important than the human resources– and that is only possible when humans are encouraged to think critically, to bring their best selves forward, and to be more than order-taking followers.
How are you doing with this today? Does your culture allow for employees to challenge assumptions and actions without being perceived as challenging? Are they safe to speak up when their ideas, values, or observations do not support the message of the leader?
Here are three questions you can use to begin assessing whether you are building a team willing to speak up or one that acts Because You Said So:
1. When was the last time I learned something absolutely new from a team member? Does your team only tell you what they think you want to hear or are they giving you the truth about what is going on? They may not be lying to you, but if they are framing every conversation according to what they think you value, your organization may be losing out on the strength that comes from diverse points of view.
2. When someone raises an objection to an issue, are they complimented or punished?
Compliments might look like inviting the team member to share more, taking action on the idea, or providing a leadership role in exploring the issue. Examples of punishment are excluding this person from future work on this issue, interrupting or criticizing the idea, giving the employee the silent treatment after the meeting, or dismissing this person as “one dissenting voice.”
3. Is it a struggle to get new programs launched successfully, even though “everyone is on board”? If this sounds familiar, you may need to take a deeper look at exactly how “on board” everyone is. When there is a gap between what people say and what people do, there is likely a misalignment of values. Look for the reasons why actions are not being taken and commit to gaining a deeper understanding of people’s perspectives.
Just like parents, even the best leaders may have their, “Because I said so!” moments. When they happen, take a deep breath, focus on the long-term goal of cultivating a curious team that is collectively smarter than any individual, and try doing better tomorrow.
**Make sure to listen to Jill’s episode on The CUInsight Experience podcast: Jill Nowacki – Do what lights you up