We all hate naysayers, snipers and back room gossips. They subvert our vision, undermine our message and divert attention from our objectives. They must be rooted out, disciplined, fired!
“Men in authority will always think that criticism of their policies is dangerous. They will always equate their policies with patriotism, and find criticism subversive.” ~ Henry Steele Commager
Valuing the Truth
I understand you, I really do. But if you are to excel as a leader you must develop a taste for high quality. sometimes unpalatable, knowledge about the “State of the nation.” You need to discern clearly between corrosive people and other people who simply don’t see it your way, but are nonetheless well-meaning and really want the organisation to succeed. These are the “Benign Subversives.”
As a leader, you should embrace them as important allies, uncomfortable as it may be at first!
Recognizing the Benign Subversives
How can you recognise Benign Subversives and how best to employ their energy? The answer is to re-frame your impression of them and their objectives and see how you can learn from them in support of your own strategy and aims. History is littered with examples of leaders, organisations and even governments whose drive to uphold an increasingly untenable core vision mutates into self-fulfilling “groupthink.” The organisation ends up assuming the best of everything and never prepares for the worst. Schlomo Ben Hur, Nikolas Kinley and Karsten Jonsen describe this destructive scenario wonderfully in their paper “Coaching Executive Teams to Reach Better Decisions.”
“Leaders can get stuck in groupthink because they’re really not listening, or they’re listening only to what they want to listen to, or they actually think they’re so right that they’re not interested in listening. And that leads to a lot of suboptimal solutions in the world.” ~Jacqueline Novogratz
The Benign Subversive is Your Antidote
Leaders readily employ expensive external executive coaches to assist in their personal quest for understanding and success. They accept their challenges and inconvenient observations and pay highly for the privilege.
Great coaches act like human mirrors showing their clients the truth in their thinking, feeling and acting.
If you re-frame each internal Benign Subversive in this role you’ll see them as a positive force for purposeful change not an enemy.
Recalibrating Your Team
If you publicly affirm their valuable contribution and encourage them, the quality of their contribution improves as they become more internally motivated.
What’s more, other less assertive people will begin to contribute.
The richness and utility of this transparent information stream is the granular intelligence that great leaders and organisations thrive upon. For a research perspective De Dreu and West concluded in 2001 that, “minority dissent stimulates creativity and divergent thought, which, through participation, manifest as innovation.” What the Benign Subversive observes may remain inconvenient and uncomfortable, but is a vital contribution to avoiding failure or achieving success. Rely on them to give you another view, one which would otherwise be invisible to you. As leader you then have the choice to accept or reject their views but at least your decisions will be based on more complete information. Remember this…
“It is easy to believe in freedom of speech for those with whom we agree.” ~Leo McKern
Taking the Next Steps
Now consider this:
- Notice who in your team or organisation exhibits the characteristics of a Benign Subversive. How do you view them – problem or solution?
- Gently encourage objective, non-judgemental observation and criticism; how do people respond? Decide how best to exhibit meaningful responses.
- Notice the balance between your positive constructive versus negative destructive criticism is response your team or organisation reports to you.
- How do you react emotionally to a report who disagrees with you or brings you inconvenient news?
- Notice what happens when you receive objective criticism with a simple “Thank you I will definitely consider what you say”.
Managing Corporate Communications in the Age of Restructuring, Crisis, and Litigation: Revisiting Groupthink in the Boardroom by David Silver.
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