Crucial Skills

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Kerrying On

Kerrying On: The Two Faces of Deference

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Deference: submission or courteous yielding to the opinion, wishes, or judgment of another

One day while waiting for my car to be repaired, I asked Leo, the repair shop’s head honcho, why his crew members kept coming to him with questions. “It’s simple,” he explained. “They aren’t as good at diagnosing as I am. Never will be. So every time they can’t figure out what to do they ask me, I tell them, and then they do it. The truth is, I know just about everything there is to know about their jobs and they don’t. That’s why I’m the boss and they aren’t.”

As I watched the crew in action, it turned out that Leo did know just about everything. He also may be one of the last all-knowing bosses in America. The time when leaders rise to power by knowing everything about every job went the way of the hula hoop—maybe even the buggy whip. Nowadays, most leaders work with specialists who know far more about their jobs than the leader will ever know. So bosses who work for a company more modern than, say, a blacksmith shop, depend on the people who come to work each day to give their best effort—as well as their best ideas.

But what happens when employees believe that it’s not safe to share their ideas or to disagree with the boss? In fact, what if they go along with the boss’s ideas no matter how zany, insipid, or impractical? When this happens, you’re in serious trouble. The people who are closest to the customer or who know the most about their area of expertise are deferring to the boss. If the boss isn’t omniscient like Leo, disaster lies just around the corner.

And yet, deference to authority thrives in almost every business. Most bosses, no matter how enlightened their philosophy or egalitarian their style, face employees who are at least slightly uncomfortable disagreeing with them—some are even terrified. You can find people who willingly dissent no matter the circumstances, but in most companies, savvy employees refrain from quickly disagreeing with people in authority.

In fact, here’s what you yourself may have done: After your boss offers a suggestion you think isn’t all that hot, you initially withhold your opposing view and wait to see if others will take the risk of speaking up. Unfortunately, since everyone is doing the same thing, nobody says anything. Soon it feels unsafe to express your differing view, and you let a half-baked idea go unchallenged.

Now here’s the really intriguing part. Leaders themselves don’t have to do anything to create a climate of fear. Unhealthy deference often stems from their title, their salary, their position, the size of their office, the leather in their chair, and the history of every other boss who ever walked the hallways—independent of the current leader’s behavior. It stems from the images of insulting police chiefs, bureaucratic office managers, manipulative hospital administrators, and every other kind of wacky or dangerous leader that fills the TV airways. Negative images are set in cognitive stone before leaders ever open their mouths. It’s not in their behavior, it’s in the ether.

Let me share with you the two faces of deference you need to be watching out for. First, there’s the problem I’ve been alluding to—employees are afraid to disagree with an idea that they think is wrong (maybe even stupid). Second, there’s the problem of taking a half-baked idea and making it worse by implementing it well. (My favorite quote as of late is: “If it’s not worth doing, it’s certainly not worth doing well.”) Let me share an example of each type of deference.

One day the owner of a company just down the street from my office burst into a meeting and threw a bag of rice on the table. It was one of those bags that you put in the microwave and heat up so you can use it to soothe sore joints. “This is the present we’ll be giving to our customers and employees this year for the holidays!” the boss shouts in a manner that suggests that his idea is actually clever. Nobody wants to rain on the boss’s parade so employees meet his suggestion with their best hint of disapproval—a long pause followed by lukewarm enthusiasm.

The boss doesn’t pick up on the unspoken message. In fact, later that week he hauls two tons of uncleaned feed corn into the office (I’m not making this up). It turns out that corn is cheaper than rice and can work just as well. Soon the feed corn is spreading weevils throughout the building. Next the boss moves the corn outside where disgruntled staff members throw it in the air because the wind is supposed to blow away the dust and chaff—or so people vaguely recall from the movie The Ten Commandments. Next the boss comes up with the idea of sewing the company’s logo on the sack. To do so, they have to buy a fancy sewing machine. Unfortunately, the cloth is too thick so they have to buy another, even more expensive machine. And so on and so on.

The entire time this insane activity is escalating, nobody expresses a word of dissent. Nobody points out that a bag of feed corn is not all that nifty a gift. Nobody dares say that the holiday “bag-o-corn” is now costing a fortune. No one has the courage to point out that they don’t like stepping away from the work they spent years of college training preparing for only to sweat over a sewing machine. Nope, the boss remains clueless because nobody is comfortable telling him that transforming feed corn into a product you can buy for two dollars on the internet may not be all that inspired.

The second form of deference can be even worse. People don’t merely stay mum when they disagree with an idea, they actually take what the boss thinks is a reasonable suggestion and turn it into something outlandish. They do so by trying far too hard to please the boss.

For instance, an Admiral who worked across the bay from my office in Alameda, California tells one of his staff members (my neighbor) that he would like to have “one of those convenient little refrigerators” in the hotel room he’ll be staying in next week. This is at a time when minibars were still new to the hospitality industry, so the hotel he’s scheduled to stay at doesn’t have such a thing.

Not wanting to disappoint a person who actually commands a fleet of ships, the Admiral’s staff has an oversized refrigerator installed in his room. Unfortunately, since the humongous fridge won’t fit through the doors, they have to temporarily remove a window. And since the hotel rooms start on the third floor, they have to lower the refrigerator into the room by helicopter.

Later that week the admiral walks into the room, sees the fridge, and tells his wife, “Look, our room has a refrigerator in it. How nice!” He has no idea that the space that will eventually hold his yogurt cost thousands of taxpayer dollars—nor would he have wanted the money spent that way. It all started with a simple suggestion, but his direct reports really wanted to please him.

So here’s the deal. If you have a nice office with a large desk, a private parking space, and fancy oil paintings on the wall—you can’t make subtle suggestions that will successfully travel down the chain of command without being blown out of proportion. The same is true if you make, say, more than twice as much as the people to whom you’re making suggestions. And people are also likely to defer to you if there has ever been anybody in your company who has been forceful and punitive. Or even if they’ve just heard stories. Frightened by the “ghosts of leadership past,” people won’t say no. They won’t push back. They won’t make your suggestion better. In fact, they’ll turn your suggestion into a command—and often a dumb one at that.

I know this all sounds crazy, but it’s not. For those of you who struggle with the challenge of getting people to comply with the most simple of commands—despite your authority—it’s hard to imagine employees who not only eagerly follow your advice, but who even take it to an insane extreme. And yet it happens all the time.

So what’s a person to do? In my next article I’ll address how to deal with the two faces of deference. For now I merely want to highlight the issue and send out a call for your experience. Send me your most entertaining and outlandish example of deference. What insane idea did the boss come up with that people actually implemented without saying a word? Or what modest suggestion did people blow out of proportion?

Well, I have to run. I’m late for lunch and my helicopter is waiting.

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