Chapter 10: Handling diversity of opinion.

When you’ve started a new leadership role, how many of you have faced a sea of expressions waiting in expectation for the first thing you do or say? Judging you based on the first thing you do or say.

Setting the scene for the flavour of your future leadership is not easy. Your first step succeeds or fails based on whether that sea of faces starts to smile, grimaces or at worst falls asleep… The terror as you realise your first speech has bombed, like the unfunny comedian, or the high as what you say resonates around the room and sets the atmosphere buzzing! I can’t always tell how or why different leaders inspire different reactions, but I think it’s mostly about being able to read the room. Taking the cultural temperature and adjusting accordingly. Inspiring people can be an elusive beast. But, if in doubt be yourself and tell the truth as far as you dare – everyone sees straight through a fake leader!

Right wing or left wing. Liberal or conservative. Idealist, optimist, realist or pessimist. Religious or atheist. Believing in fate or self-determination. Motivated by money or philanthropy or sheer excitement at the thought of something new! Any of these states of mind are possible in any new person you meet. Leadership, as with friendship, is about observing and understanding these states of mind, and deciding whether those perspectives complement your own. In leadership, unlike friendship, you may be faced with a pre-existing team with pre-existing or entrenched views. This team has opinions formed on past experience, a political and cultural history and individual motivations, all potentially divergent from your own views and experience.

In these circumstances, how on earth does a newly appointed leader create unity in an affable way? Even a leader appointed from within will face challenges, especially if they have been asked to or wish to instigate a cultural and strategic shift.

You just start somewhere. You start with the person that smiled when you said your favourite sentence. Focus on the person who didn’t, then work inwards from both ends across the whole spectrum of approval or disapproval. Each person will have an underlying reason why they nodded or didn’t when hearing your mission. Try and find out what these reasons are; talk and keep talking, without judgement, without prejudice. Listening is always cited as a core skill to succeed at selling to others. Trust is another. But listening comes first, especially in consultative sales, where selling is finding the solution tailored to the individual. You don’t have to accept that person’s view, but by listening you will start to understand why they don’t accept yours.

In a large organisation, it’s probably impossible for any leader to talk personally to every person, but talk to enough people and you’ll get the general scale, direction and spectrum of opinion. In many ways this style of listening goes back to my chapter on Enabling ego free discussion. It’s difficult to do, and impossible to fake. If you can, nominate someone else who can listen for you, someone non-invasive and slightly distanced from the senior leadership. It can’t be replaced by a survey, not really, as to be understood is to understand!

Once you understand, you can begin to plan. To implement new approaches, adjust those plans in recognition of mass disparity, or introduce explanations of why your vision differs to that of others in your organisation. Listen; then explain why you agree, why you disagree and what you plan to change as a result of the feedback you have been given. People at work, like children at home, like to understand the ‘Why’. If someone understands why they are more likely to assist in something that is different from their own perspective. They will help you, even while they do not entirely agree with you (they also have the choice to move on if they cannot continue to help you). At least you have been honest, been transparent in your views and accepting of different opinions.

The most important thing to remember is that other people have a right to hold their own opinions. They have a right to dispute your view. They have a right to live in alignment with their own values and vision of the future. The worst position for a senior leader to be in is when no-one questions their methods. It’s the worst position because there are people that disagree with you (of course there are). If they don’t speak up, it’s not them, it’s your lack of willingness to hear. And by not listening, by not hearing their views, you face a high chance of failure. The one person that would have spoken out against a stupid idea, does not speak out. The organisation invests intellectual or financial capital in a project doomed to fail, and no-one stops the folly simply because they are too frightened, too intimidated or just can’t be bothered anymore as no-one listens anyway.

Don’t put your organisation in this position. Maximise your chances of success by accepting and responding to disagreement, not your chances of failure by suppressing it. Be the democrat not the dictator. In the end, it’s better for everyone.

This is Chapter 10 of my book, Leadership Now. Please contact me with any feedback. The chapter links are listed as I go along on my website: https://www.inventingchange.net/leadership-now-my-book.html

Love Ruth x

Header image by Josh Hild on Unsplash

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