speaking up, truth to power

Speak Up to Disagree with Someone More Senior

Have you ever been in a situation where you wanted to state your disagreement or take a stand with someone who’s in a high position than yours,  like your boss, board chair, or someone else in leadership? It’s tough because you want to respect the person and/or the position, and at the same time, send the message that you think they’ve got something really wrong. Disagreeing with those in power was seen as an important function even in medieval times to the degree  that it was institutionalized in the form of the court jester. The jester was the only person who could use humor to disagree with or point out the follies of a ruler.

In today’s world, when you want to take a stand, or state something that someone in power may not agree with, consider a few things before you do that, so you remain a credible, respectful team player.

1. Check Your Own Motivations

Make sure that your message is not about you, but is for the good of the organization or your team. This is key because when you work with others, the central objective is not about furthering your own agenda. Rather, it’s about keeping the work at the center of the discussion and doing what’s right in the best interest of the project, the team, or the company. When you act out of unselfish motivations, you will likely reap personal benefits in the long run because because you will be seen as someone who is credible and has honorable intentions.

2. Assume Good Intentions

Everyone has good intentions and so does your boss and other powerful people. You might disagree with an assumption, an approach, the way they have framed the issue, but assume the underlying objective or reason for their “take” is good. You just need to figure out what those underlying motivations are for this individual and acknowledge them.

3. Speak Up When Stated Principles and Values Are at Stake

It’s not worth it to speak up about every detail that you disagree with. Speaking up to disagree with someone in a higher position is warranted when you see a stated ideal at issue. As you speak up to address the issue, go to the root of your disagreement by referring back to a broad principle that is very important to the company or to that specific individual. Observe how their current position seems to be at odds with a deeply held principle, purpose, value, or behavioral norm. By highlighting where you see the rub with what they’re advocating, speaking up to disagree is based on a loftier ideal and not simply a difference of opinion.

4. Help Them Save Face

This is not about you putting your boss or other senior person “in their place”. This is about you simply speaking up in a way that helps them to see the deeper issue that you’re trying to highlight. To avoid making their viewpoint seem “wrong”, you can propose a different solution or alternative that aligns with the higher ideals and with their their concerns. When you disagree in this way, other with seniority are more likely to listen to you and see you as someone who speaks up thoughtfully.

I can’t guarantee that everything will work out every time, but when you do seek to speak up to disagree with those more senior than you in this way, you remain respectful, maintain your credibility, and will be seen as a “team player”.

WANT TO USE THIS IN YOUR NEWSLETTER, BLOG OR WEBSITE? You can, as long as you include this information with it: Beth Strathman works with women in leadership who want to have more positive impact within their organizations, by gaining greater presence and composure, focus, and influence with their teams. Learn more at bethstrathman.com.

4 Tweaks to Fine Tune Your Response to Employee Issues

employee issue


It takes so much energy to address an employee issue. If you’re doing it at all, you are on your way to creating clearer expectations and a better working environment for everyone. You can fine tune your repertoire with these tweaks:

Be Timely.

When finding the right time to broach an employee issue, you may fall into one of two extremes: taking immediate action when your emotions (usually anger) are high or ignoring or avoiding the issue in hopes that it goes away on its own. Neither is usually preferable.

Instead, use the 24-7 guideline. If you tend to get angry or really frustrated, take 24 hours to calm down before you meet with the employee. Alternatively, if you’re an “avoider”, give yourself up to 7 calendar days to address the issue. If you don’t, then fine. Let it go. But you don’t get to bring up the situation again in the future because you chose not to address it timely the first go-round.

Assume Good Intentions.

People screw up, but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t intend something good underneath. By assuming and looking for the positive the employee was trying to accomplish, you keep yourself on the employee’s “side” and will avoid making them defensive.

Reinforce Their Autonomy and Accountability.

During your conversation, ask them to state what they are committed to doing differently going forward – whether that’s following the relevant policy or procedure, interacting with co-workers in a different way, or correcting a bad work habit. It’s just more powerful when the employee says what they will do differently next time, instead of you telling them what to do.

Underscore Your Expectations.

The point of addressing employee issues is to set or re-set an expectation, so they do better in the future. In addition to stating your expectations during a timely conversation with the employee, send a follow-up email that summarizes the basics of the conversation, including how you expect them to act going forward and any new commitments they made. This has the added benefit of creating something written and dated for future reference if needed.

To foster the kind of talent and mutual respect that makes a top team takes continual growth as a leader. Hone your leadership skills the next time you need to address an employee issue by trying just one of these tweaks.


WANT TO USE THIS ARTICLE IN YOUR NEWSLETTER, BLOG OR WEBSITE? You can, as long as you include this information with it: Beth Strathman works with corporate leaders who want to enhance their leadership abilities to drive bottom-line results. Learn more about her company Firebrand Consulting LLC at: bethstrathman.com.

Connect with Beth:
Facebook: /firebrandleadershipconsulting
LinkedIn: /bethstrathman or /firebrand-consulting-llc
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Stop Walking on Eggshells Around a Bad Employee

walking on eggshells

You know that you ought to address various issues with a badly behaved or poorly performing employee, but you haven’t. Because he is still around, you know customers aren’t getting served the way you expect, and you get complaints from other employees about this co-worker frequently. You’re embarrassed and frustrated because you feel uncertain how to approach the situation, and you secretly wish this employee would just leave. It would make things so much easier.

If he were gone, a weight would be lifted from your shoulders. The other employees would be able to work so much more effectively together and would probably be in a better mood. And of course, customers would be better served and more likely to buy from you more often. What has to happen for you to address this bad employee and stop walking on eggshells around him.

How did you get to where you are now? Many things could have happened. You could have made a bad decision when you hired him then didn’t let him go early on because you’re too nice or don’t know how many chances are reasonable. Maybe you’re afraid of this employee because you don’t know the right words to say to him and believe he’ll get angry if you try to address things with him, or you believe he will sue you for discrimination. Maybe he’s a personal friend or family member. Or you might just be conflict avoidant.

No matter how you ended up walking on eggshells around this employee, here’s how to rectify the situation:

  1. Avoid hiring poor employees in the first place. Maybe he wasn’t a keeper from the get-go. Learn how to hire better.
  2. Train your front line supervisors and other management staff on topics that make them better people supervisors, so they have the skills to set expectations, communicate effectively, and follow up when an employee isn’t meeting expectations.
  3. Make it part of your supervisors’ performance reviews to appreciate, reward, and recognize employees, as well as looking at whether they address poor employee behavior and performance timely and effectively.
  4. Walk the talk of your company values. All employees are watching you and learning about the way you and your management team address those who are routinely out of line or not producing to expectations.
  5. Stay the course and keep an even keel with tough employee situations. You might have to start from square one, even if the situation has been going on a long time, but you must address it.
  6. Get advice from an expert, whether that’s your HR person or your company’s attorney.

It’s disheartening when an employee isn’t doing what’s expected, but walking around on eggshells isn’t going to solve the problem. Get the support you need to address it, then see it through. Who knows? Maybe the employee will improve! Everyone else knows what’s going on. Allowing a “bad” employee to remain without improving is degrading your company’s credibility and thereby degrading other employees’ faith and trust in you and your company.

What to Do When Someone Speaks Their Truth to Your Power

communication, leadershipSpeaking truth to power is something Americans believe in wholeheartedly. We love historical examples of the Founding Fathers sending a message to King George and of reformers like Martin Luther King, Jr. Americans revel in the stories of investigative journalists and whistle blowers who call out the hidden misdeeds of corporations and governments.

However, what do you do when you are the person in power on the receiving end of someone else’s truth? It’s not easy to hear a customer, employee or board member’s negative opinion of a decision you made or an action you took. However, you are not an absolute ruler. With leadership comes the responsibility to account for your decisions and actions and to deepen relationships by being trustworthy.

With that, here are some things to keep in mind for times when someone speaks their truth to your power:

1. Put your ego aside.

Most of your actions and decisions aren’t about you personally anyway; they are or should be done for the good of your organization.  For this reason avoid getting defensive because you took criticism personally. Sometimes, another’s critique is more about himself than it is about the action you took. One way to avoid getting defensive is to . . .

2. Listen for commitment

Be respectful, humble and vulnerable enough to hold the space for the other person to say what they have to say.  And as they speak, give them the benefit of the doubt by listening for what positive principles or values they are committed to in the end. By focusing intently for the core idea the other is communicating to you, it’s very possible you will be able to identify common ground.

3. Consider creating the position of “fool” or “devil’s advocate”

Your direct reports and other employees know where their bread is buttered.This can create a situation where they don’t speak up for fear of losing your favor or their jobs. Take a cue from indigenous cultures that have the role of the sacred clown and medieval monarchs who had court jesters or fools. It was their job to entertain and to enforce the rules of the group by highlighting what was proper and what was not, even by sometimes poking fun at others, including a King or Queen.

Alternatively, you can invite an outside observer, like a coach or consultant, to get a bead on the inconsistencies others notice but don’t voice aloud.

4. Create a bottom-up process for input and observations

Front line employees are often the first to see the disconnect between the company’s “walk” and its “talk”. A process that allows issues and opinions to bubble up and to be addressed could be as general as a survey, or it could include periodic forums where employees interface with leadership to discuss the impact leadership decisions make in practical terms.

Hearing the “truth” that someone else is living need not feel like an attack. Instead, it can be a great opportunity to find out how your intentions are translating into others’ reality.

5 Steps to Masterful Confrontation

misunderstood; confrontationHandled appropriately, confrontation done well allows you and your team to consider differing opinions, ideas, and assumptions with passive aggressive or victim-y behavior less likely to come into play. This, in turn, leads to greater buy-in and accountability.

Still, you are so trained to avoid confrontation that you probably haven’t taken many chances to practice it.  If you’re rusty on your confrontation skills, here’s how to confront issues and assert yourself without completely alienating everyone:

1. Be humble enough to know that you only have part of the story.

When you decide to confront an issue, realize you may not have all the information and that you will learn more as you talk to the other person(s).  While the information you have may be troubling or disappointing, remember that you have interpreted the information you gathered and created a narrative in your head that is consistent with the way only you see the world.  There may be missing pieces that add a completely different spin on the issue.

If the information you have initially makes your blood boil, take at least a day to cool off and focus on the actual facts you have with the idea that the purpose for confronting this issue is to make sure you are seeing the issue from angles other than your perspective to round out the story.

2. Open with the facts.

As you start the confrontation, and after the usual “thanks for meeting with me today”, open with the facts.  These facts may come from your own observations, collected data, or from others’ reports or complaints.

Facts are different from your interpretation and include who, what, when, where, and how.  Starting with facts will help you set forth the context the issue surrounding the issue, the words and deeds of those involved, and the resulting impact those words and deeds had on the company, the team, customers, or others.

When you open with the facts, you need only recite what has transpired. This simple starting point helps you get over the awkward speed bump of what to say first and is grounded in concrete information that isn’t merely your opinion or hyperbole. Also, the facts focus the other party’s attention on exactly the issue at hand, which tends to cut off his/her options for deflecting blame.

3. Test the facts.

After putting forth the facts you have, turn over the conversation to the other person with a question, like “Do I have this right?” or “What was going on?” or “Did this situation go as planned?”  This allows the other person to agree with the facts you have, add more, or tell you they experienced the situation differently.

4. Listen for others’ reactions.

As the other person talks, instead of listening for how you can argue back, listen for what’s at stake for him or her or any commitment that comes through. You may find that what you thought was a big issue, isn’t. Or if there is indeed an issue to address, you can then use the information provided to help paint a bigger picture for the other person, so you can both get on the same page. From here you can renew or establish commitments to each other.

5. Agree on a plan of action and follow up.

Before you leave the confrontation, schedule a future meeting to follow up on the issue and any commitments you made to each other.

Confrontation does not need to be an angry exchange.  Healthy confrontation helps clear up misunderstandings or misinterpretations and get those involved back on track.  When you master confrontation, you increase understanding among co-workers, which increases the ability to work together productively.

Why Confrontation is the Secret Ingredient of Success

anger; confrontationYou dream of working easily and seamlessly with colleagues with little or no contention.  Who really wants to work in a contentious environment? Surprisingly, little or no disagreement/conflict is a sign that your group is not as good as you think.  When there is little if any open disagreement about matters of importance (mission, values, projects, and goals), your nice and easy culture is in trouble of complacency and of becoming irrelevant.  The group becomes vulnerable to “group think” without the ability to thoroughly vet ideas and does not adapt quickly and strategically to changing conditions nor does it evolve rapidly enough to face handled new challenges. And you know without little outward disagreement your colleagues are expressing disagreement and discontent out of the light of day among themselves.

“Easy” working relationships and interactions tend to be superficial, Stepford-type communications that present a good face while hiding what you and your colleagues really think and feel. When you don’t express your real thoughts and concerns, interactions in the workplace are coated with the waxy build-up of unvoiced concerns, resentments, passive-aggressive behavior, disengaged employees, gossip, and scapegoating others.  This sets you up for poor decisions based on untested beliefs and untried assumptions, which in turn increases stress, smothers innovation, derails growth, and allows incompetence to go unaddressed.

The result is a toxic culture with low trust even though you and your colleagues are outwardly nice to each other while putting down each other behind your backs.

The secret to turning this around? Confrontation.

Whoa!  You have been raised to be non-confrontational.  How can confrontation be good?  Confrontation can be done in a respectful way where the emphasis is on really digging into the content of what others are proposing rather than attacking others personally.

Confrontation doesn’t need to be loud and forceful. It isn’t about making someone else wrong while you are right nor is it about winning.  Instead, confrontation done right is about using the data that is known to question a process, a decision, an opinion, performance or behavior. Confrontation done right highlights other possible perspectives or interpretations without demeaning others. By confronting the completeness and interpretation of existing data, you stand a greater chance of having deeper, more meaningful discussions while de-personalizing the issue at hand.

Disagreement is natural when interacting with others because we don’t all think, believe, or act the same.  Sadly, whether you’re trying to be PC or whether boat-rocking in general makes you queasy, the idea of confrontation gets a bad rap, mostly because you have seen it done badly for so long.  The typical scene that pops into your head when hearing the word “confrontation” probably involves someone losing her cool by yelling, pounding a fist on a table, and/or even throwing something. That’s not the type of confrontation that is productive.

Handled appropriately, confrontation done right allows a department, work group, business unit, or team to vet differing opinions, ideas, and assumptions, which leads to greater clarity before a course of action is chosen.  The result?  A collegial climate in which you feel you can be transparent and vulnerable because the focus is on the good of the group rather than on protecting your ego by looking like a hero. Healthy confrontation creates an atmosphere where people are willing to forego the short-term relief of staying in a familiar rut in favor of long-term, meaningful impacts that will enable your company to adapt and thrive.

And that is why confrontation is the secret to your success.

backbend, bend over backwards, take advantage of

Does Your Back Ache From Bending Over Backwards for Your Employees?

Being the boss is tough.  With all the information available on how to motivate and engage employees, without being a micro-manager or a bully, it can be a bit confusing trying to determine what exactly an effective boss is like today.  A big part of becoming a good boss is understanding and creating healthy boundaries.

What is a boundary?  A boundary is an imaginary line that exists between you and your employees.  It marks the difference between your organizational role, authority, responsibility and status, etc. and theirs. And by virtue of this, it defines acceptable behaviors in a given situation, and it gives you permission to tell others what to do and what to expect of them as they do it.

How do you know if you have unhealthy boundaries with employees?   If your boundaries at work are non-existent or too loose, you’re probably the type who is very concerned about whether your employees like you.  That is, your primary desire, motivation, and basis for your decision-making centers on making your employees like you.  And because you want them to like you, you believe if you take care of them and even protect them, they will like you more and work that much harder.  After all, it’s all about relationships, right?

Yes, it is about relationships – healthy ones – with good boundaries.  Boundaries that recognize and communicate that you are not your employees’ equal at work and that it’s your job to tell them what to do and to provide them information about why they need to do it and how well they did it.  If you are overly concerned with being liked, you’re focusing on you and not on the company’s goals and interests (which is the job of management).  (This is called co-dependence or “letting the tail wag the dog”.)  In short, you are not fulfilling your role as boss and are bending over backwards too far.

If you find yourself walking on eggshells around employees in the pursuit of their happiness and at the expense of the company’s and other employees’ interests . . . . If you balk at requiring/asking your employees to do the not so fun parts of their jobs . . . . If you are avoiding a conversation about performance or conduct issues because you’re afraid you might upset an employee. . . . here are 4 things you can do to create healthier boss/employee boundaries:

First, consciously step into your role as boss with no apologies.  This means, you are the “decider”.   It’s your job to set expectations and sometimes to have difficult conversations: that’s what you’re paid to do.  You don’t need to be a jerk about it.  Just be as clear as possible.   Your employees already expect this by virtue of your role as the boss.  The authority and permission to tell others what to do is built into the boss/employee relationship.  (Repeat:  you don’t need to be a jerk about it.)  They’re waiting for it because even they know when they are pushing boundaries.  They are probably surprised you haven’t already addressed certain issues with them.

Second, strive to be respected instead of liked.  You might be able to do both, but garnering respect first and foremost forms the basis of a healthy boss/employee relationship.  To gain respect, you must be firm, fair, and consistent, so your employees know what to expect of you on a regular basis.  And yes, your employees won’t like everything you hold them accountable to, but they’ll understand it and expect it.

Third, don’t actively seek to be friends with your employees.  They might be great people, but to maintain a healthy boss/employee boundary, you shouldn’t see each other tipsy at happy hour or know minute details of your current or past relationships.  Concentrate on the work with occasional superficial chit chat.

Fourth, get better at handling conflict and hard conversations. Being the boss means you will deal with situations where most people don’t want to change the way they do things.  Conflict abounds.  When you shy away from conflict, you’re trading the possibility of something new and full of potential, for staying stuck in the present situation that you may think is safe but which reflects your inability to adapt and your lack of faith in others to do the same.

To better cope with the discomfort of being the boss, find peers – other managers, business owners, CEOs – to commiserate and celebrate with.  It can be lonely being in charge, and these peers can relate to the trials and tribulations of being a boss and offer advice and support.

Your employees were hired to accomplish work in your company.  They don’t mind doing the job – they applied for it.  And healthy, defined boundaries will create clarity, making your work together easier and more productive.