Most of us like to be involved in big decisions that affect our work, goals, products and groups. We don’t necessarily want to make the decisions, but we like to be consulted, to provide input, to have our perspective represented in the decision-making process.
For managers of technical people, there are a lot of benefits to consulting one’s staff.
1. You get a variety of well-informed perspectives. Most technical people are very bright, creative and observant. They rarely lack opinions. And you can benefit from their wisdom and insights even if you choose a different path than the one they advocate. Their ideas can be especially important when your decisions involve technical direction and/or tight constraints on budget or schedule.
2. Your people feel more respected and appreciated. People who feel respected tend to be more engaged with their work and more committed to delivering their best for you and your organization.
3. People are more likely to support a big decision if they feel that their perspective was heard and considered, even if the decision is contrary to their opinion. The last thing you need is to have your group attempting to undermine your decisions. They might drag their feet on implementation, appeal to higher authorities or even stage a mutiny.
So I’m a big advocate of including your people in decision-making. But there is one big exception to that rule: Don’t ask people for their opinions when you don’t really want to hear them.
If you are not prepared to hear people’s input with an open mind, asking for that input will usually make things worse. All the advantages of asking turn immediately to disadvantages.
1. You don’t benefit from other perspectives. Your decisions may turn out to be shortsighted, ill advised or impossible to implement.
2. Your people feel disrespected and manipulated. Often, when big decisions need to be made, your people will put a lot of work and thought into providing you with useful feedback. Sometimes, it involves weeks or months of work to bring you well-considered options and ideas. If it then becomes obvious that their input was never going to be taken seriously, they feel as if their time has been wasted and their opinions are not valued.
3. People are more likely to resist a decision that they feel is poor if their input was disregarded. They respond to insult with passive aggression.
So how do you avoid asking for opinions that you don’t want to know?
First, imagine that the person you ask comes back with something completely contrary to your opinion. Can you see yourself asking follow-up questions to try to better understand this new perspective? If you can, then go ahead and ask; you’re probably open-minded about how to decide this matter. But if your instinct would be to try to convince the other person that you’re right, then you don’t want to know and you shouldn’t ask. It’s insulting to ask someone for an opinion only to be immediately say that he or she is wrong.
Second, be honest with others about whether you’re looking for input or validation. There’s nothing wrong with consulting people when you already have a strong opinion. Just make sure that they understand the context of your questions. Start out by letting them know that you think that you know what you want to do but want to solicit feedback on your ideas or to consider alternatives before proceeding.
And if they do contradict you, don’t criticize their ideas; share your dilemma with them instead. It’s much better to hear, “If I were to do what you suggest, how would I handle this other factor?” rather than being told, “That won’t work!”
So if you’re not open to other opinions, don’t ask for them. Your staff may feel bad about not being consulted in the decision-making process, but they will definitely feel worse if they sense that you have asked with no intention of giving their ideas serious consideration.
Paul Glen is the co-author of The Geek Leader's Handbook and a principal of Leading Geeks, an education and consulting firm devoted to clarifying the murky world of human emotion for people who gravitate toward concrete thinking. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.