For those of you leadership junkies and/or tech buffs, there’s a fantastic interview with Steve Jobs that was taped by OPB (represent!) in 1995. The interview was missing for 17 years until a copy was discovered and released as Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview. I highly recommend repeated, focused viewings, because when you do, you’ll discover beautiful moments like this one:
I love this answer because I’ve lived this answer. There is just so much folklore. I recently had an exchange where three colleagues had three different answers for how and why something was done. That’s a funny-when-not-exasperating experience we’ve all had, but it gets more interesting if we take that thoughtlessness and and consider it in the light of organizational power.
As I float in and out of organizations and hear the rumbling and grumbling of the unified diversity that makes up the same staff with different faces in the same organizations with different names, I find the same reality: thoughtful questioners in positions of power are considered trail-blazing geniuses who bring transformative insights to their organizations while thoughtful questioners without that positional power are consider annoying, threatening, subversive, pessimistic, nay-saying cynics.
Try this thought experiment: How are Jobs’s words taken differently if they’re said by a low-level employee instead of by the company president? Why is it when it’s said in the breakroom, it’s complaining but when it’s said in the boardroom, it’s visionary? If the situation and observation are the same, what’s the difference?
The answer is position. When challenging questions go up instead of down, it threatens the hierarchy.
I think it may be because, deep down, we all really want to serve under philosopher kings. We want authority to be inextricably linked to competency, leadership, skills, and prowess. And we want promotion to be linked to merit. We want the Great Thinkers to be our lords and for our lords to be Great Thinkers. Therefore, we subconsciously conclude the thoughtful questions ought to come from the top down as Lord Genius applies his or her mega-mind to solving all our ills. Conversely, If the questions flow the other way, it’s threatening to the way we think things outta be.
My problem with this scenario is that it’s entirely driven by personality when, in real life, the legitimate questions are driven by reality. If the team is focused on the project, then any thoughtful team member asking a tough question about a project would be a welcome contribution.
But we all know the usual case is a punctuated devolution into alpha-supremacy rites –the knee-jerk reaction, “Who do you think you are?” almost never being satisfactorily answered with, “A member of a team who wants us to win.”
In my experience, arrogance in a subordinate is no where near as devastating to the team as reactive arrogance in leadership. In fact, that low-level arrogance may be a sign that there’s leadership talent in the ranks (Most high-performing team members stand on a razor’s edge between promotion and termination. But you can imagine how that plays out in real life. Actually, some of you don’t need to imagine…)
The point is, if a leader isn’t a thoughtful questioner, than the thoughtful questioners “beneath” that leader (organizationally speaking) will be seen as annoying. But if a leader can make the success of the project be bigger than the egos in the room, it will allow all that observational talent to bubble up to the surface.
Practically, this means leaders have to value questions in order for questioners to have value within the organization.