Encourage real debate — Great Leadership Idea No. 27

by | 14 Dec 2010 | Leadership Ideas


Everyone wants to please the boss. Few of us are immune to the joys of hearing what we want to hear. Bad news, on the other hand, is never welcome. Leaders need to separate the message from the messenger: not knowing about bad news is the most dangerous thing of all. Some corporate structures also actively prevent serious issues from being debated at a sufficiently senior level.

Allow people to bring bad news

Dieter Zetsche, Chairman of Daimler AG and Head of Mercedes-Benz, puts it very well.  ‘The higher you climb up the ladder, the more people will tell you what a great guy you are. The worst trap you can fall into is believing them.’

The problem is, as Zetsche points out, that if nobody ever tells you that they have a different opinion—that they don’t actually agree with what you are doing—then you may sleepwalk your way into disaster. ‘It’s important to encourage people to give you feedback and to disagree if they have a different opinion. Otherwise you are totally alone. You will lose touch and ultimately make decisions which are really dumb.’

This sounds easy, but it takes some hard work. The first step is to make it plain that it is acceptable to be the bearer of bad tidings.

Create an atmosphere that allows problems to exist

As another car boss, Alan Mulally, President and CEO of the Ford Motor Company points out, you have to create an atmosphere where it’s OK to say that there is a problem; that everything is not going to plan.

Mulally introduced a ‘stop light’ system, to enable departments to report on the progress of key projects. At the early leadership meetings, all of the lights were green, even though Mulally new that several projects were running into problems; Mulally made it clear that he expected and wanted to see some amber and red lights.

Once they began to appear, he applauded the teams concerned: the meeting debated what help could be supplied, and how it would be delivered. As Mullaly says, ‘The minute that people don’t feel safe, the minute they get yelled at, or it’s them, not the issue, that you’re going after, then everything will always be green and you’ll know nothing. So it is a big culture change, but it’s exciting and it’s fun.’

Some engrained corporate systems prevent real debate. Louis Gerstner, the IBM CEO who turned the ailing computer giant around in the 1990’s (see Gerstner and the IBM turnaround) spotted that the company’s system of using ‘Administrative Assistants’ (bright young things being groomed for future management roles), was preventing real debate.

Get issues out in the open

Problems were discussed by the administrative assistants before they were presented to senior management.

The assistants looked for the solution that they believed would be most acceptable to all parties. As Gerstner says: ‘Rather than have proposals debated, the corporate staff, without exception, worked out a consensus across the company at the lowest possible level.’

Consequently, what the Management Committee most often got to see was a single proposal that encompassed numerous compromises. Too often the Management Committee’s mission was a formality – a rubber-stamp approval.’

Good leaders encourage real debate. Leaders who shoot the messenger will never be told what is really happening.

Some corporate infrastructures actively prevent issues from coming to the attention of senior management, preventing  the search for real solutions.

Encourage real debate is further explored in 100 Great Leadership Ideas.


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