Not long ago I sat in on a meeting of the executive leadership team for a global technology company. At the beginning of the session, the CEO quickly flashed a couple of slides on the screen that summarized key aspects of the firm’s strategy, saying
“You’ve all seen these charts before, so we don’t have to dwell on them.” The meeting then proceeded from there. There was only one problem: None of the other executives had seen those slides before; they had been created by the CEO’s strategy director only a couple of days prior to the meeting. Yet not a single person in the room spoke up.
The fact that executive team hadn’t seen these charts before doesn’t matter. But what matters greatly is the behavior in the room: If senior executives can’t correct the CEO on a relatively trivial issue, will they speak up on something more substantial?
Moreover, if the C-suite executives defer to their boss to this extent, it is likely that many of them have replicated the pattern with their people. In fact, later that same day one of my colleagues tried to encourage a project leader to clarify the goals for a critical initiative with her C-suite sponsor and was told: “He’s a very busy person, and I’m sure he would prefer that we figure this out ourselves.”
Deference to authority is deeply engrained in most societies, so it’s no wonder that it also shows up in many organizations. We honor our parents and are taught to obey them. We’re similarly encouraged to respect our teachers, elders, community, and religious leaders.
Given all of this cultural reinforcement, pushing back against hierarchical authority often goes against the grain. It’s made even more difficult in organizations when such push-back is implicitly (or explicitly) discouraged — either by an unwillingness of senior people to receive feedback or subtle punishment for people who speak up.
But the fundamental problem with this is that managers at all levels need their people to add ideas, provide different perspectives, and challenge them. Being further from their teams’ problems, people in positions of authority lack the visceral or technical data to know all the answers.
Therefore they need to depend on subordinates who are closer to the action to supplement their knowledge. But that’s the logical argument. On a more emotional and often unconscious level, people in positions of authority often feel that they should have all the answers, display strength and confidence, and give clear direction.
That’s what it means to be “the boss.” So if they are contradicted or challenged by a subordinate they feel threatened, or worried about looking weak. To avoid this, they send out signals, sometimes unintentionally, that they do not want their people to speak up.
Self-confidence as a critical characteristic for managerial success. But it’s important to recognize that self-confidence works in two directions: The subordinate needs enough self-confidence to speak up, and the boss needs enough self-confidence to listen. When either lacks this ability, communication is constrained and deference becomes a dangerous default position.
Breaking free of an overly deferential culture is not easy, but here are a couple of steps that might encourage the practice of pushing back:
With your people: Give them encouragement and make it easy. Actively ask your people for their opinions. Draw them out. Tell them that your positions are tentative first thoughts and that you want them to help you flesh them out. Recognize and reinforce people who do speak up.
Start your meetings by saying that this is “safe space” where you can challenge each other. And most importantly, if you do start feeling defensive and threatened, try not to react immediately in a way that might shut down the discussion.
With your boss: If you are concerned that your boss is unproductively hiding behind a shield of authority, try to make her more aware that this is happening. Talk in private about the deference dynamics and what information is potentially not getting through.
Join forces with some of your peers to constructively increase the power of your “voice.” Suggest ground rules for meetings that encourage healthy criticism. And if none of these tactics work, talk with your HR partner for additional help.
There’s nothing wrong with a certain amount of deference in organizations. But when a culture becomes overly deferential, it can lead to frustration, resentment, and bad decisions. Fighting through this kind of culture is hard work, but essential for long-term managerial success.