You walk into your office/workshop/factory/dungeon and are greeted by an entire group of like-minded people who are great to and for each other. They enjoy each other’s company, there’s plenty of flow of ideas and hard work is completed without hiccups. Everyone gets together and shares what they’ve come up with, and disagreements are always dealt with gently, honestly, and with the appropriate care given to how each person may feel.
Sounds great doesn’t it? Sounds like the ideal working environment. Or the ideal social hang. But there’s a paradox at play in the above scenario.
Because I’m literally too lazy to cut and paste what I wrote above, I’m going to paraphrase myself with "Everyone got along, and the ideas were always flowing” or something along those lines.
Herein lies the problem. If you want creativity – real ideas – that stuff that isn’t just blue sky and cinnamon rings (that’s a saying, right?) – the stuff that turns into action and helps you really achieve at the coal face, to lay down a vision and just smash it out the park - you need a bit of discord. But not just any discord. Definitely not the virulent, terse type that leaves you completely drained after every encounter with your group. Or the type where you feel like you are literally the only one who doesn’t get heard. Or worse – like there’s only one person who is actually getting heard.
Life is too short to surround yourself with assholes – amaright? (say it like one of the mob caricatures from the Simpsons). But - what if life is too short to limit your ideas to people who agree with everything you say and do? What if refining, shaping and proving your ideas through fruitful discord and abit of opposition is just the fire your idea needs to go from good to great?
As leaders, we are often the first to get this wrong. Our nature wants to surround ourselves with support. We believe that if we could only get enough people behind our idea it’ll work out, as if validation is a proving force. Guess what? It’s not (but you already knew I’d say that).
Below are some ideas that might help you get past the validation barrier and into that place of fruitful discord.
Do NOT surround yourself with people of the same personality
I cannot stress this enough. You do not get to the best place you can get to by surrounding yourself with yourself. You absolutely need to have people UNLIKE yourself in your circle of influence – note the term “influence”. Put people in that group that are both UNLIKE you, and that you will allow to INFLUENCE you. Struggle with this idea? Start with the basics: their experience, their achievements, their level of knowledge, education, empathy, awareness. If you’re an extrovert this will be difficult because you will want to only find people you can converse with. And guess who often sucks at quick and easy conversation? Yeah. Introverts. Have those conversations. The ones with the awkward silences. Ask questions. Probe into a person’s experience and knowledge – don’t let yourself believe that just because a person isn’t immediately good at selling themselves that they don’t have a huge amount to offer. If you’re introverted you have to push past your comfort zone and find people who inherently annoy you. They probably talk a lot but you can see past their flashy bullshit. They’re probably not the quiet achiever you are. They feel the need to have everything they have done recognised and seen by people. Or they’re great at getting in with other leaders, selling their ideas or steering conversation to their own advantage… or bulldozing it…
Either way, you absolutely need the variety in your team.
If you’re a big talker – set yourself a boundary that will make you talk less. If you’re a diagram drawer, make yourself put the pen down and get verbally descriptive. If you’re a quiet observer that never gets heard, set yourself a goal to say something in every meeting. Importantly - If you feel like your input never comes out how you want it to, push yourself to really define, refine and verbalise.
When it gets hard, respect that you needed these targets and stick it out, it will be worth it.
Explore other peoples’ feedback
If someone says they don’t like something, explore that. Explore why – ask people the questions that really get to the basis of why things don’t appeal. There is gold in every piece of real, honest feedback – sometimes you will need to go digging through the mud a little. Not everyone is good at sugar-coating their thoughts or feelings, especially when they have an opposing opinion. Try to cut back on having your own opinion heard and really understand the opposing one. Which leads me to…
Exercise your backbone
Ok for those more sensitive readers, this may be the time to grab a pot of herbal tea. Maybe even some Echinacea. Or tap grandma’s bathroom cupboard for that good stuff... It’s time to talk about backbone. Specifically – learning to use one. Your own one. Reality is this – people will say and do things you don’t agree with. When you let opposition and quality discord into your circle of influence, you will start hearing more opinions that you don’t like – and that is the entire point.
Not only will you need to hear more opposing opinions, you will need to learn to cop some flack without becoming a raging ball of hate.
Look for the gold in what people say. I’m not going to go into the occasions where people are vindictive or jealous or whatever except to say that these will be rare. Most (all, really) of the time it is your verbal defence reflex kicking in – also commonly known as “not using abit of backbone”. Before I start sounding like someone’s Dad/Mom/little sister, I will say that keeping calm, respectful, and in control when being opposed is a skill that takes effort and time to hone. Just because you get it wrong every now and then doesn’t mean you can’t apologize and move forward. And do be the one to apologize.
Have an honest assessment of your current circle of influence
Get real with yourself here. You’ll need to sit back and genuinely try to see your team as it is. You may need to cull the group down in order to restore some balance. If that’s not an option, maybe bring in some new faces. Where that can’t happen, it will take careful management of your own style and preferences to ensure that you listen just as intently to the quieter or grumpier folk in your group. You may even need to actively encourage those people to have a stronger role in your team – and this may even bring about a need to reduce the input volume of others in the team. Yep, the voices you like hearing.
Saying “No” to the constant support of like-minded individuals can be a challenge. It can be frustrating, tiring and painful. It can also present us with a massive opportunity to grow beyond our comfort zones; to become more inclusive, to be more inquisitive, grow tougher mentally, stay calm and cool under pressure, and really gain that true insight and development that honest feedback brings about.
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