We like to think we can disagree with the people in charge and have things go our way with great consistency. After all, in the movies it’s the struggling person with no influence who has the great idea that everyone opposes and who, through sheer grit and determination (and often involving Jeff Bridges or Kevin Costner), rises to the top to make the higher-ups look like idiots. In life, though, it’s more typical that people who openly disagree with the boss end up first in line on the chopping block – especially if they are right and have the support of other people managed by that same boss. I have also seen people promoted to a position that gets them away from other humans. I personally was exiled to Omaha years ago for increasing sales by doing the exact opposite of what my boss said I should. Not that the people in Omaha were not humans … it’s just that I went from a big-city office where things were moving and shaking to a location where people wore Christmas sweaters. I have noticed over the years that when the people who are driving change wear a lot of holiday clothing, your chances of global impact are minimal.
In 10 years of research on leadership and change management, I have observed that VP teams commonly get rid of talented employees who openly disagree and have the positioning and charisma to influence others. It actually makes sense for that to happen. Dragging people screaming and kicking in a direction they don’t want to go has a history of being expensive and diluting the company’s vision. Though teamwork can be overrated, without it you can’t make things happen or develop agreed-upon, repeatable processes. Organizations and individuals don’t choose the best ideas; they choose the ones they are most comfortable with.
It is possible, however, to use personal influence tactics that can get you traction for your ideas. For example, it’s important understand that people are much more likely to agree with those who have agreed with them first. Agreement is the foundation of accountability. If you look for areas where you agree with the boss and you state your agreement (“I agree with that; let me tell you how I can help you”) before making a recommendation, you are much more likely to have your input heard and used. It’s a kind of formula that I call Ask, Listen, Agree, Recommend. This works well because people rarely object to their own ideas! They think, “My idea sounds fantastic coming from you! We should definitely do that.” Unfortunately, only a small percentage of people use this tactic. It’s just too simple, and people who feel oppressed by their boss really need to be right and make the boss wrong. So they grumble and do nothing, or they accidentally blurt out something that seals the fate of their work life – something like “I know you’re intelligent; I just can’t tell that by talking to you.”
I was dragged into an opportunity that I was not thrilled with, and it turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me. It was the last corporate job I had before starting my own company in 1996. They were so screwed up that I was exposed to almost every problem an organization could have, including a bizarre concept of “next-day air” shipping. They said next-day air meant we would receive the order Monday, pull the product from inventory Tuesday, and ship it Wednesday so the customer gets it Thursday. I explained that today (Monday) is today and tomorrow (Tuesday) is the next day, hence the term “next-day” air! They said I was wrong and needed to tell my employees and customers that next-day air took three days. I told them I was quitting, not today but the next day, which, if you look on your calendar, is tomorrow! I’m sure they are better off without me and my crazy logical disruptions. That psychotic BS inspired me to help other organizations as a motivational speaker with leadership, communication, and influence. But in reality I started my own company for the same reasons most entrepreneurs do but will rarely verbalize: I got tired of making other people rich!