How to challenge authority at work, without causing conflict

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To improve your communication, you will have to learn how to conduct more difficult conversations with others and increase your personal skills in addressing conflict, according to Guy Lubitsh and Tami Lubitsh-White

Originally published 2 December 2020.

Challenging authority at work is fraught with risk. Many high profile examples offer a reminder of how easily these types of challenge can go awry or be ignored entirely. Understanding how to skilfully and effectively challenge authority at work without causing conflict is crucial, so why do we often fail to do it well?

Psychologist Irving Janis suggests that organisational struggles stem from the adoption of a collective defence mechanism. Janis coined the term ‘groupthink’, to explain this collective defence mechanism that causes boards to avoid conflict and ignore crucial information.

When the Challenger space accident happened more than years ago, we were reminded of the importance of this phenomenon. Although the engineers at NASA were aware that the shuttle would explode, they did not feel able to convey the message to senior management.

After putting a man on the moon, senior executives were blighted by arrogance and were not willing to listen to issues raised by the engineers. According to the New York Times this prevented critical information being taken on board, resulting in a grave accident.

When Fred Goodwin initiated a merger between the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) and ABN – AMBRO, he neglected to take into consideration the need to connect and consult with his own senior management team. Under his leadership, the organisational culture became one of greed and fear. Top executives reported how they were encouraged to forge the signatures of key customers. In response to any dissent, Fred Goodwin would react aggressively and often make redundancies. The atmosphere in the bank was toxic, consequently, senior leaders were frightened to challenge the CEO. This resulted in the worst merger in corporate history, the loss of billions and numerous lawsuits. Fred Goodwin was stripped of his knighthood and will go down in history with the unflattering nickname bestowed upon him by the media – ‘Fred the Shred’.  

Similar problems arose at Nokia. After studying the culture at Nokia in the mid 2000s, Yves Doz, Professor of Strategy at INSEAD, and Mikko Kosonen, President of the Finnish Innovation Fund, argued in California Management Review that senior management were oversensitive to stock market performance  and lost sight of the importance of investing in research and development.

Middle managers who were aware of this pattern did not want to challenge upwards and rock the boat. They were concerned that challenging management would damage personal reputation and possible career advancement.

Writing for Harvard Business Review, Megan Reitz, Professor of Leadership and Dialogue at Ashridge Executive Education at Hult International Business School, and John Higgins, an independent researcher, coach, consultant, and author, offer a different perspective on why staff fail to address conflict directly. In a large-scale study, they found out that employees often perceive their managers as scarier than managers perceive themselves. This offers another explanation as to why staff are often reluctant to address issues and open potential conflict directly with senior managers. They also suggest that in many cases, the lack of challenge to authority stems from low self-esteem and internal assumptions that our views are not good enough. This results in staff censoring their views and avoiding any challenge to mainstream management thinking, especially when the stakes are high.

In support of this, in our book Connect: resolve conflict, improve communication, strengthen relationships we argue that our internal fantasy tells us that challenging authority will have much more catastrophic consequences than the actual reality.

So how do we mitigate these barriers and persevere in challenging authority at work, without causing conflict?

Increase psychological safety in your organisation and executive team – it is important to create a climate of psychological safety in which people can express themselves without fear of sanction.

Create a culture of unboss – by flipping the traditional hierarchical mindset within the organisation. Instead of staff working for a boss, the leader is viewed as a servant that helps the team.

Ensure cognitive diversity at all levels of the organisation – recruit people who are different from yourself, not just diverse in terms of age, gender and national culture but also have a different way of seeing and experiencing the world.

Nominate a devil’s advocate – have a rotating ‘challenge role’ across your executive team to ensure that as many alternatives and creative solutions have been considered in the strategic decision – making process. Allowing someone to be overtly challenging will encourage everyone to feel more comfortable with opposing ideas.

Support people to take wise risks and learn from failures – we are taught from early on in our careers that in order to progress, we need to ‘play the game’ and win. We marvel in our success. However, our most profound learning and real confidence comes from mistakes. Try and think of a recent failure? What did you learn?

Setting expectations early with your line manager and key stakeholders will help avoid unnecessary conflict. This means having a kickoff meeting to establish the common ground rules of working together including; what’s the overall task? Who is doing what and what is my role? What are the ‘open’ as well as the ‘hidden’ expectations? What is within our authority/control and what is not? How do we make decisions and resolve conflict? 

Develop self – awareness of your personal influencing style and impact on others

Effective challenge of authority without conflict depends on your ability to understand personal influencing style, identify potential breaks in communication, and find ways to influence in a way that is both clear and assertive. The ability to flex your influencing style to someone else, to see the world through their eyes, to validate their perspective can help resolve unnecessary conflict and opens the door to outstanding results. For example, if your influencing style is focused on solving problems quickly, it’s important to give yourself space and time to step back and think together with the team about a wide range of alternatives for a more creative solution. If you are a manager that has a warm influencing style and prefers team harmony, it may be challenging for you to address poor performance conflict between colleagues. To improve your communication, you will have to learn how to conduct more assertive/difficult conversations with others and increase your personal skills in addressing conflict. 

Separate facts from emotions. When challenging authority it is important to use data/facts and where possible avoid emotions.

Challenge the behaviour not the person. In order to challenge effectively, it’s useful to provide feedback on the specific behaviour that you want to see changing (e.g. being late, lack of listening) rather than giving general personal feedback (e.g. you are bad at XYZ) which is unhelpful for both parties.

Dr Guy Lubitsh and Dr Tami Lubitsh-White are the authors of Connect: Resolve Conflict, Improve Communication, Strengthen Relationships (available now, published by Financial Times Publishing, priced £14.99).

Further details on how to connect in a virtual environment, can be found in ‘Connect – Resolve conflict, improve communication and strengthen relationships’

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