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Passing the tests your boss gives you

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While facilitating a group session last week I had a flashback to a moment in my own career when I did exactly what the group participants were doing.

Early in my career I was a member of a senior management team that was becoming increasingly frustrated with our leader's pattern of being highly opinionated in spite of his encouragement to express a differing opinion. He also tended to be outwardly critical of you if he thought your logic was "faulty" (which usually meant it was different from his).

We had the benefit of an outstanding 3rd party coach and mentor who regularly attended our meetings. He had been able to observe the interactions first hand. Often, after a meeting had adjourned we would vent our frustrations with him and share out litany of criticisms of our leader's style, mixed messages and belief that his talk about wanting to hear different opinions, etc. was just window dressing and carried no credibility with us.

He would listen patiently and then say, "So what are you going to do about it?" Many of us had expected him to say, "Yeah, he really is a difficult boss" or "You poor people, trying to express and idea and the boss won't listen." At the time that was what we wanted to hear but fortunately for us he knew what we needed to hear.

Initially we responded to his question with excuses and defensive statements but he kept asking, "what are you going to do about?" A bit later, he added a second question; "what are you going to do if you choose to do nothing about it?"

With his help we began to realize that part of our responsibility to our leader included offering feedback, taking a stand on what we believed in, having a sound business case to support our ideas, pointing out potential negative consequences of not considering our ideas and opinions, letting him know how the dynamics were affecting both the team and our view of his sincerity about wanting to hear other ideas.

In truth, we didn't suddenly have an epiphany and quickly change our collective behavior. Early on we joked that one of us would volunteer to test the new behavior and based on what happened to him the rest of us would decide what to do.

With the help of our coach we decided to choose a business issue that would require our collective effort and was a high priority to our leader. We worked together in advance of the meeting to discuss the issue and developed our presentation, including what questions would likely be asked and where the likely sources of disagreement would be. One member of our team played the role of the leader (replicating is typical behavior) in a "dress rehearsal".

When we made the presentation it initially unfolded like other meetings with the early challenge and criticism until we said, "We believe our overall presentation will address your questions and concerns if you will hear us out before forming your conclusion. We also want to reinforce our confidence in our analysis, options and proposed course of action and are open to your "pressure testing" our work." There was a brief silence and then he said, "Proceed".

At the end of very productive Q&A and one of the best discussions we had ever had, our leader looked around the table and said, "I was hoping the day would come when you would push back, stand your ground and not retreat the first time I challenged you. This is what I need and want from each of you and now I have renewed confidence you all have what it takes."

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