Please Reject My Idea

When was the last time you made a proposal at work that was rejected? Was it quickly out of hand? Or was it “death by a thousand cuts”?

This experience has happened to almost everyone at work. Depending on how it is handled, rejection of ideas can feel like incivility or even discrimination. It can lead good employees to disengage from their work, metaphorically hiding under the table rather than risk feeling like they and their ideas are being shot down again.

Recently, I had an idea rejected at work. Fortunately, my boss is possibly the most thoughtful person in the world. But that does not mean we always agree. We can disagree yet maintain mutual respect, trust, and appreciation. Nevertheless, it was frustrating, and it was disappointing. But it led to something better.

Let me explain: Over the past year, demand our programs at the Center for Positive Organizations has grown pretty much across the board. We have more students in our learning programs, more people attending our events, and more leaders in our co-learning community. This happened in a year when our budget was reduced by 30% due to the expiration of a major gift. As you can imagine, this has put a lot of strain on the team. I am ever so proud of how they have responded to the challenge.

Simultaneously, my own role has become more complex. I feel a constant tension between supporting internal operations and connecting with external partners. This is a dilemma familiar to anyone building a business (or, in our case, a social enterprise).

We needed to evolve how we work in order to match the changing demand system. I proposed that we hire or promote someone to spend more time being a servant leader to our staff, and I would focus more externally. The idea was given consideration, but the response was no. The rejection was swift and it was consistent. Yet the decision was not accompanied by any viable alternative suggestions. “Go figure it out,” was the implicit message. “Find something better.”

I felt grumpy about this rejection but was still committed to the goal of finding a way to manage what needed to be done for us to be successful. Living in that uncomfortable creative tension of having a pressing goal but no clear path, new options gradually started to emerge. By serendipity, Rice University Professor Scott Sonenshein (a member of our Research Advisory Board) recently released Stretch, a fantastic book on doing more with less. Scott gave a Positive Links talk at Michigan Ross which helped me reframe the problem. I then had a walking meeting with my colleague Brian to swap notes on team structures, which gave me new ideas. Finally, planning for three weeks of leave this summer for my wedding and honeymoon, while very exciting, also forced me to think creatively about how things will get managed without me being so hands on every day.

The resulting idea was better than the original band-aid solution of adding staff members. Drawing on some of the principles of self-organizing teams, I decided to democratize our team processes. Companies such as Cascade Engineering have skillfully experimented with enabling people to manage themselves with great results. Why couldn’t we take a step in that direction?

We are now running an experiment where each meeting has its purpose and design laid out for anyone to run it. This means that as our personnel changes over time, we can easier assimilate new people to our way of working. The person running each meeting is selected based on a principle, not a title or a name. This means that although meeting attendees may vary, there is always someone clearly responsible for running each meeting. For instance, our morning stand-up huddle is run by the newest person on the team that is present, and I happily defer to her. Our monthly lunch and learn meetings are led by whoever signed up to offer the first update. If I have to miss meetings, whether it be to give a presentation to executives or to get married, it is clear how things should run, and how to support each other.

We came to what promises to be a better way of doing things: a way that is potentially more effective at supporting people, providing leadership development opportunities, and creates stronger social fabric on the team. And we did it without increasing headcount or budget.

This process of finding opportunity in disappointment can be applied elsewhere. There were five important steps:

  1. The intention was clear. As my colleague and transformational leadership expert Bob Quinn asks so often: “What is the result we want to create?”
  2. The constraint was clear. What can’t we have or do in pursuing this goal?
  3. The mental reframe. How can this be the catalyst to coming up with something even better?
  4. The solutions emerged. Who and what can we turn to for further ideas? How can multiple ideas be combined to achieve our goals?
  5. The experiment. How will we test potential solutions?

Having our ideas rejected is not a pleasant experience. But there are a million ways to do everything. With the right perspective and approach, we can turn it into an even better outcome for everyone involved.

Chris White (@leadpositively, leadpositively.com, chriswhi@umich.edu) is managing director of the Center for Positive Organizations (@PositiveOrg) at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business.

 

Originally appeared at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/please-reject-my-idea_us_59120586e4b0e3bb894d5b12

In Defense of Doers

Leadership experts make it sound easy: “Follow these simple steps and you will have amazing results!”

The typical format is somewhat formulaic. With poise and pithy quotes, we deliver our sticky stories. We boil down thousands of hours of research and experience into a set of snazzy slides and talking points. When they go well, our sessions help people make sense of the chaos around them. At our best, we provide practical tools and approaches that may make people more effective or happier at work.

I say this with some basis in experience: I could probably be perceived as one of these “leadership experts.” I run a research center with a mountain of relevant content. I teach an MBA class at a top business school. I blog regularly throughmainstream media outlets. I give dozens of external talks and workshops a year. I have written a book through a prestigious publishing house. The resume adds up to the picture of a “leadership expert.”

Yet I have also been leading teams and organizations for the last eighteen years. This allows me to say unequivocally: leading and managing people is much, much harder than talking about it.

The reality of organizational life is messy. It doesn’t fit neatly into the two-by-two frameworks, or three step processes that make for compelling 700 word blog articles. The people we work with on a day to day basis have their own baggage from previous jobs. Maybe their previous boss was a tyrant, always looking for what was being done “wrong.” The people we work with have their own lives outside of work. Maybe he or she is exhausted from working a second job, or going to evening classes, or has young children who are not yet sleeping through the night. The people we work with have diverse strengths, weaknesses, and preferences. Maybe a struggling team member could be a superstar in a slightly adjusted role or working environment. The complexity is mind-boggling.

And you know what? The same goes for me. I have my own baggage from previous jobs. I have had a controlling boss. I have experienced a sense of betrayed trust in the workplace. I too have my own life outside of work. I am spending much of my time excitedly preparing for a wedding next year, with all the new challenges and opportunities and growth that weddings and married life bring. I have my own strengths, weaknesses, and preferences. Connecting dots in strategy and networks comes naturally to me; defining and implementing consistent processes does not. I am far from perfect.

So what advice might I share with someone brave enough to show up every day, trying to build a positive organization in the messy, complex real world of work?

Be humble.

When you are wrong, or fall short of what you expect of yourself, admit it. Admit it quickly and unreservedly, to yourself and others. Apologize. Being humble will both manage expectations, and build trust. And try again.

Be gentle with yourself.

Accept, right now, that things will rarely go exactly as planned. Some things you try will not work the way you hoped. You will find some people harder to work with than others. Just do your best, and be kind to yourself about the emotional bumps and bruises along the way. These psychological knocks are simply the cost you pay for caring about your team. Being gentle with yourself will help you sustain yourself and gather up the energy needed to make your organizational change efforts successful. And try again.

Keep learning and improving.

Never fall into the trap of believing that the formulas proposed from most “leadership experts” will work perfectly in your organizations. They will require skilled adaptation. You will need to become comfortable using the tools that they recommend. Ask for feedback often. Look for subtle feedback in what you are told and not told by those around you. Continually learning and improving will make you better and inspire those around you to want to partner with you. And try again.

What is the best advice you have for someone trying to build a positive organization?

Chris White (@leadpositivelyleadpositively.com) is managing director of the Center for Positive Organizations (@PositiveOrg) at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business.

Originally appeared at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/great-work-cultures/in-defense-of-doers_b_12441314.html

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