Instead of celebrating her fresh take, the marketing director was told she was being difficult, even demanding.
Recently hired at a major financial firm to identify growth strategies, she spent her first 60 days on the job studying the situation. She went to meetings, asked lots of questions, and researched the marketplace responses to different campaigns. Then, using all of this data, she did a classic gap analysis between what the firm said they wanted when they hired her (a customer set that reflects the broader demographics) and how well they reached that audience. She confirmed with her colleagues that her analysis was on-point and put together a 3-part plan, as her boss had requested, for strategies that could bridge that gap.
Yet, she got pushback. Lots of it. Her boss told her that she was bringing up uncomfortable and difficult topics. They hired her to make the firm better, but the firm’s leadership wanted to believe they were already great.
Divergent, dissident voices are the key to growth and innovation.
Divergent, dissident voices are the key to growth and innovation. Yet some leaders demonize the people, accusing them of being the problem instead of solving the problem that is being raised. The reason is simple: It’s not comfortable to see your shortcomings. It is this discomfort that causes leaders to deflect and defend. And, of course, when leaders do this, they limit whether the organization advances.
I’ve seen this in countless situations. It happens when a leader is anxious and afraid that once they name a problem, they won’t know how to fix it. The gap between knowing something is wrong and not knowing how to fix it is uncomfortable, and it’s the discomfort that leaders seek to push away.
The tougher the situation is, the more likely a leader is to penalize the person bringing the issue forward. That’s why with values-based or ethical situations like sexual harassment or equal pay, it’s — ahem — easier to demonize and in some cases, fire the leaders agitating for change than taking on the issues themselves.
Take for example, the way Google handled a top employee concerned with the company’s direction in China. For nearly a decade, Google tasked Ross LaJeunesse with protecting human rights in China. In this role, he developed the company’s plan to stop censoring search results. Google was celebrated for this support of free expression and data privacy. LaJeunesse, who held a variety of executive roles at Google, was trusted throughout the company and received rave performance reviews, not just for his work with China, but for his work across the board.
That changed in 2019, when LaJeunesse felt the company moving away from the values that he — and they — had championed. So he tried to sway minds. More recently, he joined 1,400 employees who signed an internal letter criticizing Google’s failure to be transparent about its plans in China.
Visibly at odds with the company’s leaders, he got a lot of push back. One day, he was accidentally copied on an email. An HR director said he seemed to “raise concerns a lot,” and instructed staff to “do some digging” on the person instead of the issues.
As with the marketing director, the leader demonized him instead of dealing with the issue. This can happen in any organization — including yours — and affects every part of the business, from marketing to sales, by product and industry moves, and at every level. You probably have in mind right now the tough situation your organization is facing and can fill in the blanks.
So, how to change? Let’s create a rubric for leaders who need to face the tension head-on.
First, notice the problem. In both examples, Google and the financial firm, the leaders understood an issue existed before the person was involved. Yet, when things become uncomfortable, they fuse the problem to the person. I often ask leaders facing uncomfortable problems, “What is the word for this kind of work, or what is going on here?”
And nearly always, they’ll answer: disruption, change, or growth. And, so, when asked, they can clearly name that they are facing difficult problems and that getting through them is how the organization advances. I just remind them, as uncomfortable as it is, when you no longer have the answers, you get to start building what comes next. It’s something leaders intellectually know they need, but emotionally aren’t always ready to face.
As a rubric, ask: Do management/key status reports explicitly name open issues that could significantly affect the future of the business?
Next, define processes to work on gaps to solve tough problems ALL THE TIME. (Yes, ALL THE TIME. Caps required.) Consider the work of Rita McGrath, who has researched how companies once able to hold market advantages for 20-year arcs, are now only able to do so for less than five years. This fast, fluid market dynamic means we must be constant learners, adapting and growing and trying new things. As I wrote in 2012, the new rules for creating value will require us to leap from opportunity to opportunity, gazelle-like, rather than act like a market gorilla, holding its ground while its habitat disappears.
Ask: Is there an ongoing mechanism to address far-reaching issues? Can difficult topics be raised? Is it a regular process? As you develop the capacity to surface difficult topics, you might want to study what percent of your time is spent working on bigger critical issues that seem unsolvable.
Finally, celebrate the agitation instead of demonizing the people bringing issues forward. Leadership, after all, is about solving problems. If people aren’t bringing you problems, consider why not. Maybe it’s because they stop believing that you care or don’t believe that you want their best ideas; either of which is a problem. As Colin Powell said, the day your people stop bringing you their problems, you have stopped leading them. So, instead of celebrating the top five most popular or most productive things that happened at your firm, celebrate the hard-fought, newly learned things. When you do this your employees will understand that you value more than looking good, that you want to get better.
Ask: Do I recognize and reward those who bring issues forward that need addressing?
Not complainers, but champions. Problem spotters don’t especially enjoy bearing bad news, but they do it to advance the organization. To help you, the leader. Maybe it’s because they have a different perspective, or a fresh take based on that spot in the world where only they stand. Maybe it’s that they are better at expressing the issue, where others struggle. Stop making it so hard on them to help you. Don’t say, “I hear you have a problem with us.” Say, “I appreciate you helping us to get better.”
Between knowing there’s a problem, and not knowing the answer to that problem is discomfort. Discomfort is not the same thing as unsafe. It’s just a temporary feeling we live with while we work on things. If we get irritated by the rub, as Rumi would say, we never get the polished work. And this is the point. We want to get better. We want to grow. We want to disrupt. However uncomfortable it is, it’s necessary to work through it.
Growth is something we all intellectually know we need but emotionally aren’t always ready to manage. When faced with not knowing how to improve, we can easily run backward to, “There’s no problem,” or even, “It’s (all) theeeiiir problem.”
When you’re in that spot, here are a few things for you to consider:
- Why do you want to learn/grow/change? Name it.
- Name the cost of not doing the work.
- Name the pain it currently causes you.
- Write it down in your most private of journals, so you can refer to it.
Yes, it may seem more “comfortable” to stay where you are or deny the need to change. But, it’s equally important to examine the drawbacks of not changing and why it matters to you to be brave enough to grow. Then you get to pull yourself toward the future.