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Don’t cast out a truth teller

By Lynne Curry bio

“Morgan” was the one person who took issue with the CEO’s presentation of his new initiative. Before she voiced her concerns, the 12 other managers around the conference table had nodded appreciatively when the CEO made each of his points.

Several other managers secretly shared Morgan’s doubts, but no one came to her aid when the CEO looked irritated. Six weeks later, it surprised none of the other managers to receive an email notifying them that Morgan had left the company. It did worry these managers when the CEO’s initiative failed. Nevertheless, the remaining managers knew better than to voice their apprehensions when the CEO and his hand-picked CFO put a good face on the situation.

In organizations such as the above, the corporate immune system rids itself of those who challenge or simply question the company’s leaders. These organizations lose valuable employees because they cast out those who voice contrary opinions. If an organization’s leaders want the best outcomes, they can’t afford to silence those brave enough to voice minority viewpoints.

The question for leaders—how do you manage those willing to reality check you?

Realize you need them

Start by recognize the value of those willing to speak their mind even when they present a viewpoint different than yours. They may see opportunities, and more importantly, risks that you’ve overlooked. Further, these gutsy individuals may prove to be your organization’s secret weapon if your organization faces new challenges. While others often cling to the status quo, these individuals may encourage or even push you and others to reexamine your assumptions, thus igniting the healthy discussion that enables you to make solid, fully vetted decisions.

Engage them

If you want radical honesty from those you manage, show respect to those that offer it. When they raise concerns, don’t shut them down, or you send them and others the message that you won’t tolerate dissent. Instead, engage them by listening to them and asking questions that dive deep into the issues they raise. Challenge them to go beyond their initial critique and to offer alternative solutions.

Coach them

Independent thinkers often lack the skills needed to play well with others and don’t always see ahead to how they affect everyone else. Help them learn how to present their ideas in ways others can hear them. Give them boundaries; for example, you can ask that they their bounce contrary ideas off you before they confuse everyone by devil’s advocating what you present at an all-hands meeting. If they attack a sensitive colleague, intervene and then mentor them, so that they learn where, when and how to offer strongly voiced opinions.

Leverage their strengths

Don’t marginalize them by passing over them when you issue meeting invitations. Instead, place your truth-tellers on task forces and in roles that put their skepticism to good use. Few mavericks make good managers, but most play a vital role if you need a working group that identifies ways in which the organization can innovate.

Assess whether they’re a blessing or a curse

            While every organization needs those willing to play devil’s advocate, no organization needs devils, or those who don’t respect their colleagues. If the maverick in your company repeatedly tosses verbal grenades at his coworkers for fun, let him know he can’t run roughshod over others. If he continues to launch disruptive rockets, let him know he’s gone too far and bless him out the door.

I met Morgan during an executive search process shortly after her former CEO showed her the door. One of my clients had told me he wanted to bring someone on board who could help him “shake up” an organization mired in inertia. Morgan fit perfectly in this role and my reference checking convinced me she might not have been the problem in her former organization. Once hired, she asked searching questions, challenged the way things were done and enabled her new organization to streamline every one of their processes. Morgan’s former organization’s loss became her new organization’s gain.


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