You're the Boss: When Entrepreneurs Shouldn't Ask for Advice
If only we had the good sense -- and courage -- to preface some of our statements with: "Ignore my opinion, please." Far too often, we offer up or are subjected to opinions on issues about which we are ignorant, ill informed, or simply lack any substantive understanding.
Consider the current crop of nightly political television shows featuring one partisan pundit after another telling us what is right or wrong with the other parties' actions. On rare occasion, a thoughtful voice adds clarity and insight regarding a complex, nuanced topic. However, too often the "cyclonic noise machine" roars with what seems to be a Mad Libbed prepared-this-regardless-of-what-topic-we-are-addressing-tonight response. Recognizing these shows are designed to be cage matches rather than educating viewers and communicating real information, perhaps this is excusable.
What might be the cost to your small business of allowing – and in many cases promoting – a meme of "every opinion counts"? There are plenty of topics for which someone's uninformed opinion definitely should be ignored – and about which people should be discouraged from thinking they have something worthwhile to say. If that sounds like a recipe for dampening employee engagement, think again.
We need to distinguish between an informed, grounded point of view and noise-making. Are people entitled to their opinions? Certainly. Sitting at home, driving in their car, visiting with friends at a bar or enjoying a sports event -- appropriate venues for all manner of opining. But businesses are most effective when people go beyond expressing opinions to making offers, recommendations and requests they are committed to fulfilling, not just offering up their point of view.
It's one thing to respond to the features of your companies' next hot product or service, or weigh in on the agenda for an upcoming offsite. It's quite another to proffer a position about the performance of a co-worker based on third-hand gossip about their abilities and work style. These kinds of lazy opinions often manifest in the common water-cooler ritual: "Why can't the boss get his act together?" This is often followed by some form of: "If they'd only follow my advice, we would all be better off."
Think of the amount of time and energy we would save if the only people allowed to put forth opinions and participate in decision-making were those who actually knew something about the subject at hand. In most organizations, the decrease in frustration and fatigue from endless consensus-building meetings would unleash a torrent of positive energy towards important projects.
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What I'm suggesting does not preclude less-informed people participating in discussions as a way of educating themselves, or allowing them to ask the type of questions that might reveal counter-productive blindness or biases on the part of the "informed" decision-makers. However, when it comes time to make serious choices on such things as product specifications, marketing plans, financial investments or the hiring of key employees, only those who are competent to make that decision by virtue of their knowledge, authority and accountability for the outcome should have a say.
Organizations are not democracies. Small-business owners need to develop and educate their people to make informed decisions. At the same time, they need to let people know there are decisions they will not be asked to participate in until they have enough information to be beneficial. This doesn't produce unengaged employees. It is responsible and effective leadership.
In the short term, this way of working makes for better decision-making and greater efficiency. In the long term, it rewards people who educate themselves about issues of importance to them and their organization. It gives them a pathway to advance and provides an environment where the more competent they are, the more they can contribute and be rewarded for their contributions.
So the next time someone asks you for your opinion on a topic you really don't know anything about, be bold and tell him or her to ignore whatever you say next.
Josh Leibner is founder and president of The Strategic Commitment Group, a management consulting firm based in Bridgewater, N.J., specializing in helping leaders improve organizational performance. His clients include numerous Fortune 500 organizations including Capital One, Pfizer, Prudential and ThomsonReuters. He is co-author of The Power of Strategic Commitment (Amacom, 2009), and he blogs at strategiccommitmentblog.com.