Challenging Without Silencing

Often, I write in this space about CEP’s research, our work with foundations, or my thoughts on the nonprofit sector more broadly. But, today, I want to reflect instead on one of my own challenges as a leader of a nonprofit with 33 incredibly smart, committed staff.

I’ll be clear at the outset – I don’t have the answers on this one, far from it. And, quite frankly, I’d love advice from readers of the CEP Blog.

My challenge is this: how to get the best out of people by encouraging them to feel comfortable to speak up while simultaneously fostering a culture in which people constantly challenge each other in order to get to the best solutions.

To me, it often feels hard to figure out how to do both at once.

I think most of us have been in situations where we know the best ideas and insights are not being heard. The discussion is shut down. Opportunities for improvement or innovation are lost. Staff members sitting around a meeting table are holding their tongues, feeling “silenced.” Only later, out of earshot of the “leaders,” do their voices, and perspectives, come out.

But I think most of us have probably found ourselves at the other extreme, too. I am talking about situations in which a group endlessly exchanges ideas and thoughts as if they are all equally valuable – with such an emphasis on being non-judgmental that no decision ever gets made.

As a leader, I sure don’t want to contribute to either dynamic.

I thought a lot about this during CEP’s conference a few weeks ago as I reflected on the wisdom of the speakers who addressed us and how they apply to my own leadership responsibilities. These are important issues for foundation leaders – our audience – but, frankly, I was thinking about my own role here. As a leader, my job is to get the best out of everyone at CEP, such that we implement our organizational strategy as effectively as possible.

But it’s also my job to know when to cut off debate and discussion – when we need to move on. Or when to prevent certain topics from being brought forward at all, because I feel I can see that they will distract from more important work.  Or when to challenge something that doesn’t seem to quite hold together – and that isn’t being challenged by others.

It’s a difficult dance, and one that has to change as the leader reads the natural tendencies of those around him or her. Some people are more comfortable with vigorous debate, relishing it, even; others need to be drawn out, or are made uncomfortable with vigorous disagreement.

Sometimes, with some people, vigorous debate crosses a line and starts to feel personal. At that point, it’s rarely productive.

I’ve read dozens of books on leadership and organizational change, even taken courses on it. But if there is a magic formula, I haven’t found it. I feel like I make a mistake, in one direction or another, almost every day.

I will think, later, “I should have pushed harder on that point.” Or, “I pushed too hard, and it shut down the discussion too soon.”

I also wonder how much is really up to the leader, and how much is beyond his or her control – subject to the mysterious mix of personalities, dynamics, and work habits that shape an organization’s culture?

Still, as someone in a leadership position, I am not willing to give up the notion of my own relevance so easily! And so I struggle with whether I am getting the balance right: between being the nurturer and the challenger; between being the mediator and the prosecutor; between being the hard-charging coach and the impartial referee – or even assuming the role of the opposing team.

Maybe others have figured out how to strike the right balance better than I have?  If so, I’d love to learn from you.

Phil Buchanan is president of CEP.

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