Consider this scenario: Top executives in your company have decided to go with option A over option B. At least that’s what you’ve heard, confidentially, from a couple of reliable sources at work. Now you’re walking into a leadership team meeting where your boss – who happens to be one of the top execs – will announce the decision to go with A. Or so you expect. Instead of making that announcement, however, your boss begins the meeting by saying:
As you all know, we’ve narrowed our options to A and B. At this stage we’d like input from the rest of the leadership team. So that’s why I’ve called this meeting. We want your input. What are your thoughts on A vs. B?
Now it’s your move. What, if anything, do you say in response to your boss’s question? Over the years, many of our clients have described experiencing this very predicament. When asked how they responded, most said they either played along or kept their mouths shut, thinking all the while that the request for input was a charade that would allow the boss to say the decision was made consultatively. Calling out the leader’s lack of transparency was, not surprisingly, seen as a career-limiting move.
The difficulty here is this: How does one respond candidly without sounding accusatory, and thus possibly embarrassing and/or angering the leader? Your first and most important move in this situation pertains to adjusting your way of thinking. If you don’t want to sound accusatory, adjust your mindset by dialing up the curiosity and dialing down (at least initially) any inclination to cast judgment. For example, you might think to yourself, “Hmm, is it possible the top executives haven’t made a final decision yet?” or “Hmm, maybe I’m missing something…”
A curious stance leads to inquiry. A judgmental stance leads to accusation. Adjusting your mindset not only involves curiosity, it also means giving the other person (in this case, your boss) the benefit of the doubt. With this mindset, you’ll be much better equipped to respond productively when asked, “What are your thoughts on A vs. B?” You could, for example, respond as follows:
Respectfully, are you asking for our “input” or our “support”? Or maybe something in between the two? Because I’ve heard – maybe incorrectly – that top leadership is already leaning strongly towards A. Just trying to get some clarification.
Open-minded inquiry of this sort is unlikely to be a career-limiting move. In fact, it might nudge the leader to choose his words more carefully, or it might help him to really “get” the importance of transparency. Or, you might learn that your reliable sources weren’t so reliable this time, and that your leader wasn’t trying to pull a fast one at all.
Of course, if the leader is trying to pull a fast one, your honest question might lead him or her to cling to the ruse even more strongly – aka, dig a deeper hole. Inevitably, people who dig such holes are eventually found out. But without adjusting your mindset and asking open-minded questions, it’s easy for an honest mistake to look like (or turn into) an intentional ruse. And who wants to live in that world? Not us! With this in mind, we close this article with the words of philosopher and poet, Johann Goethe:
Treat people as if they were what they ought to be, and you help them to become what they are capable of being.