To get the attention of higher-ups, chances are you will need to escalate your behavior or rhetoric to a level that creates some personal risk. For example, you might generate a story in the press. Leaking a story to a reporter might be effective in focusing people on your issue, but will likely be considered an act of institutional disloyalty if you are discovered. Rising to ask a CEO a provocative question at a companywide picnic will surely get attention, but it may well be focused exclusively on you and not the issue. Your impertinence could even cost you your job, or at least cause some of your colleagues to put themselves at a safe distance from you. A friend told us of a situation in which her lack of author- ity seemed to her an insurmountable barrier in mobilizing people to focus on an important issue. She had been at a meeting of the senior management team of a small company when a new depart- ment head asked what seemed like a perfectly reasonable question. The CEO responded with an outburst, attacking the idea as “the most stupid thing I have ever heard.” This stunned everyone, and the question was dropped. The meeting deteriorated, as everyone else felt silenced. She realized that a nerve had been touched and
158 ✷ Leadership on the Line some unspoken issue had surfaced, but she felt unable to pursue it in her role as just another member of the group. She also realized that the department head’s appropriate and important question would not be addressed. She discovered later that the issue underly- ing the CEO’s outburst was his hope that the new department head would relieve him of some of his responsibilities. He felt stretched too thin. He took the question as a deeply frustrating signal that the new colleague was not experienced or knowledgeable enough to help him out. Could our friend have intervened in that situation without put- ting herself at risk? Could she have put the department head’s ques- tion back on the table? More critically, could she have helped the CEO and the group address the issue of the overburdened CEO and the need for more talent? How could she have refocused the atten- tion of the group? A few possibilities: She might have waited a short while and then asked the question again, in a different way. She might have offered the observation that the CEO’s strong response seemed disproportionate to the question, or she could even have asked him why he felt that way. Perhaps after the tenor of the meeting changed, she could simply have stated what everyone knew to be true, that something was getting in the way of being productive. Getting a group to focus on a tough issue from a position with- out authority is always risky business. But you can lower the dan- ger by speaking in as neutral a way as possible, simply reporting observable and shared data rather than making more provoca- tive interpretations. It may be more than enough simply to ask a straightforward question in order to bring the underlying issue to the surface.
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- Winter '20
- Ronald A. Heifetz, Marty Linsky