Michael knew this debate was coming. He knew that several members of his team felt strongly that the company wasn’t ready to take on this new project. It would lead to many long nights and eventual failure. Michael works in a healthy team with a leader that encourages open, honest feedback, so he knew he would have an opportunity to vocalize his perspective. Yet despite his passionate input, the leader decided to move forward anyway. Michael went home that night, poured a strong drink, and tried to figure out what to say to his team.
How do we engage in honest discussion around difficult, important decisions in private, and then speak as one voice when discussing those decisions with others? How do we tackle this challenge as both leaders and followers? Most of us have found ourselves trying to defend a decision our leader made that we didn’t personally support. At the same time, many of us lead others and have made decisions that were contrary to what those we trust for advice have proposed.
I recently saw a post on LinkedIn saying that good leaders should surround themselves with people who can provide diverse perspectives and make it safe for them to do so. This isn’t a new concept, of course, and it seems that I’m hearing it more frequently lately. And it’s true. Good leaders should make it safe for those around them to offer differing perspectives and opinions.
But perhaps the more difficult challenge is for those of us who are courageous enough to provide a different perspective or opinion to remain not only tolerant but connected and engaged when our perspective is not adopted by the leader.
Why? Why is it so hard for us to be “publicly loyal” after we’ve disagreed in private? It’s not just that our egos may be bruised. It’s because it requires us to do something that we hate, especially in our highly individualistic culture where we worship individual rights: submit to another.
Making the best decisions and advancing the organization
Before we discuss how to be privately honest yet publicly loyal, let’s set some context. We’re not talking about situations where our leader is simply a bad one – someone who lacks integrity and isn’t living up to the values of the organization or basic interpersonal decency. If your input is repeatedly ignored by a leader who has a personal agenda, you need to find a new opportunity.
We’re also not talking about situations where you are the leader and have someone on your team that repeatedly offers input that amounts to simple whining, negativity, or self-promotion. If you have someone like that on your team, you know what you must do. Allowing that individual to continue to weigh in will kill your team’s culture.
We’re talking about situations where those involved are genuinely good people doing their best to make decisions that advance the organization’s mission and serve others well. How do we actually practice “privately honest, yet publicly loyal” in this organizational context?
When you’re a leader making the final call
First, let’s say you’re the leader who makes the final call. Even in situations where a group of people, perhaps a leadership team, is wrestling with a challenge there’s usually one person who either blesses or makes the decision. If you are that leader and know that your decision went against the advice of one or more people on your team, then acknowledge it. Don’t just let it go. If it was a group discussion, acknowledge it in front of the group.
“I know that you saw this a different way, and I made a decision that you didn’t agree with. It doesn’t mean that I don’t value your perspective, and it certainly doesn’t mean that I don’t value you. I want to thank you for your honesty and for being willing to share your thoughts transparently. I learn things when you do, and this level of engagement makes us better as a whole. My promise to you is that I won’t talk about this decision to others in a way that is disrespectful of your perspective.”
Good leaders don’t disparage the differing opinions of their team members to others. The leader’s responsibility is not only to make it safe for people to speak up, but to honor and respect them when they do. It’s the leader’s way of being “publicly loyal,” even while exercising legitimate decision-making authority at the same time.
When you’re a follower whose idea wasn’t accepted
Let’s say you’re the follower whose perspective was not adopted. This is tough. When we feel like our perspectives are ignored, we feel hurt and frustrated, if not downright angry at times. This is natural, and we need to remember that our brains process everything through our emotional center first. We have to train ourselves to take a breath. Press pause. You will think and speak with more clarity once you are able to move past the emotional response, which may be sooner or later depending on the situation. In the moment, it is okay to say “you know from my input that I don’t like this direction and wouldn’t do this if I was the one making the call. Please give me a little space to process it, but my promise to you is that I won’t talk about this decision to others in a way that is disrespectful of you.”
Secondly, be sure you understand the “why” behind the decision so that you can explain it to others. You have to be prepared for this because there are probably others in your organization who share your perspective, and they will ask you about it directly. So practice your response! What you absolutely cannot do is say something like “I tried to tell them, but they wouldn’t listen to me.” You can’t even just punt with an “I don’t know” because it perpetuates doubt and distrust within the organization. Doing this doesn’t help your cause, nor that of those who share your perspective. It actually hurts it. A lot.
Understand and share the why, assuming you’re not divulging confidential business information. “We openly discussed the challenges and took this decision very seriously, and here’s why we’re moving forward this way.” If you really can’t share the why, then assure people that the leader considered all the input and that you trust the leader to make decisions that are intended to help, not hurt the organization, its people, and its clients.
A good follower doesn’t disparage the leader. The responsibility of a good follower is not only to transparently vocalize a differing perspective but to support the leader who solicits it by executing with excellence the decisions with which they do not necessarily agree. This is the essence of being privately honest and publicly loyal. It’s more than tolerance. It’s helping your leader because you genuinely care for the organization even when you hold a different perspective.
Every interaction is an opportunity
You may have heard the saying “loyalty publicly results in leverage privately.” While I think this is true, what I don’t like about the statement is that it keeps me as the focus of the subject. You don’t support your leader publicly in order to gain self-serving “leverage.” The practical reality is that if you don’t support your leader publicly, you lose your ability to influence your leader. You forfeit your own opportunity to lead, and you may not be making decisions that keep the long-term mission of your organization as your north star. Being privately honest and publicly loyal requires both the courage to speak up and the humility to support your leader when you disagree.