Corner Office-Surviving Being Right

Corner Office-Surviving Being Right

. . . when those in power are wrong.

I’ll never forget running into a former co-worker early in my career, when we’d both been affiliated with the same national financial institution. He’d been a vice president in the company and was a very likeable guy. He seemed to work well with everyone I knew, and most people held a high regard for him (or so I thought).

One day, when the executive group came back to the office after being out of town for a meeting, we learned that he was leaving the company to “pursue other interests.” We all knew that it was a euphemism for having been canned. No explanation was given for his quick exit, and everyone wondered what had happened.

The truth came out when I saw him several weeks later at a social function. We exchanged pleasantries, and then I couldn’t stop myself from asking him why he had left the company. He nodded, thinking, and then answered simply, “It’s not good to be right when those in power are wrong.” It turned out he disagreed with a senior executive on some matter and became intractable in his position. He wouldn’t compromise, so they fired him.

This happened a long time ago, yet I still remember it clearly because his words contained a nugget of wisdom that I’ve recalled time and time again. During my career, I’ve seen a lot of people hang themselves and become organizationally ineffective or destroy their careers by feeling the necessity to be right.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not saying that people shouldn’t speak up when they know that those in power are wrong. I’m just saying that there are effective ways to have your voice heard so that you win not only the battle, but also the war.


Wield Influence Without Power

Most often, I’ve observed this problem of being right in areas that require deep vertical expertise—engineering or accounting, for example. Sometimes people with vast knowledge about a subject are so attached to their cause that it becomes more important to get their way than to see the big picture of what’s best for the entire company. They’re like a horse with blinders on—they only see one path.

These folks work in their organizational silos and don’t know how to get cooperation from other people across the company. In today’s workplace, where outsourcing, partnerships, and alliances are the norm rather than the exception, learning how to exert influence laterally is key to surviving and to getting things done. Protecting turf and participating in office politics belong to a bygone era. My co-worker from years ago might have kept his job—and still had his way—if he had been more persuasive than combative, a coalition builder instead of a silo protector.

These skills take effort to develop if they don’t come naturally to you. But as my grandfather used to say, “If you’re going to go bear hunting, you better have both barrels loaded on your gun.” Wound a bear with the first shot, and you’ve got a really angry bear coming after you. In other words, it takes a balanced approach to be successful. Just as you make an effort to learn new technical skills, you should also focus on developing “softer” skills—networking, coalition building, persuading, negotiating—and lateral leadership abilities.

Cultivate a network of people outside of your functional areas in the company whose support you need to get your ideas implemented or your projects completed successfully. Observe who gets things done and who has broad networks, and build relationships with them. Make it a point to have lunch once a week with one of these contacts or influence brokers within your company.

Too many people think that persuasion and negotiation are immoral—a venial sin or something that used-car salespeople do to manipulate their customers. Others see it as kissing butt, being too soft, or taking too long to get results. They’d rather bully their ideas through.

Well, I think we can all agree that former President Ronald Reagan was anything but soft or a butt kisser. Yet when he wanted to get something accomplished, he knew that taking the issue directly to the American people and encouraging their support through their legislators was the way to get things done. Thus, he earned a reputation as the Great Communicator and discovered that persuading the public was a much faster route to the finish line than fighting with Congress was.

Getting buy-in from people rather than ramming your idea or project down their throats is vital. Make your discussions with influence brokers and decision makers across the company open ended to get their opinions and reactions to your idea. Get agreement on the final goal at the front end of the process. As the project gets underway, you’ll find that politicking and bickering over details will fade because all parties will be more focused on the end game—the desired outcome—than on getting their way.


Tailor Your Approach

Another tip: Consider the decision-making style of your superiors. It varies as widely as their personalities do, so your effectiveness at persuasion will improve if you tailor your presentation and conversation to your audience.

In a Harvard Business Review article (“Change the Way You Persuade,” May 2002), customer research consultants Gary A. Williams and Robert B. Miller write that executives typically fall into one of five styles of decision making. In a two-year project studying 1,600 executives, they found that 36 percent were followers, 25 percent were charismatics, 19 percent were skeptics, 11 percent were thinkers, and 9 percent were controllers.

Let’s start with the largest group, followers. Executives who are followers make decisions based on how they’ve made similar choices in the past or how other trusted executives have made them. Tending to be risk averse, followers need to feel certain that they’re making the right decision, and will gravitate toward a presentation that includes references and testimonials.

Charismatics are easily excited by new ideas, but have learned from experience to make the final decision based on balanced information. When trying to persuade a charismatic leader, resist the temptation to join in on the wave of excitement. Instead, focus the discussion on results, make straightforward arguments, and use visual aids to illustrate the features and benefits of the proposal.

Skeptics are highly suspicious of data, especially any new information that challenges their current viewpoint. Described as aggressive, take-charge people, skeptics are more likely to be persuaded by credibility and clout. Gaining endorsement from someone the skeptic trusts is key to persuading this type of leader.

Thinkers are the toughest group to persuade because they have a strong aversion to risk and move like molasses in a Minnesota January when making a decision. They are cerebral, logical leaders who need to have tons of data on market research, customer opinions, case studies, cost-benefit analyses, et cetera. An argument persuasive to thinkers includes all perspectives and lots of information.

The final group, controllers, have strong—some would say overbearing—personalities. In their own minds, they are the best at everything, and they tend to be self-absorbed. To persuade a controller, create an argument that is linear and credible, with plenty of details that sell the idea on their own. The best chance for your idea to live another day is if you give controllers all the information they need and then allow them to make the decision by themselves. Don’t be too pushy. They need to make up their minds in their own time.

Persuasion Matters

As I write this column, the Tom Petters trial has come to a close in St. Paul, with the jury deciding that Petters was guilty of all 20 counts of fraud and conspiracy against him in a $3.65 billion Ponzi scheme that wiped out scores of investors. He may spend the rest of his life in prison.

I wonder what went on over the years inside the Petters organization. Did the people working beneath him try to persuade him away from the crimes that were being committed? Were there employees who were fired for being in the right when the boss was in the wrong? Could anyone have been more successful in negotiating with him, building coalitions across the company against the wrongdoings, or exerting influence, even though it seems Petters had all the authority?

The bottom line is that it takes more than being right to win the battle. It also takes people skills, chemistry, and street smarts to wield influence and persuasion. Then you’ll not only win the battle, you—and the entire organization—will win the war.

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