On kindness and decisiveness

Mike Fisher reminds us how important it is for leaders to be excellent listeners in Listen or Speak. This part particularly resonated because it’s a misconception about me that I’ve had to deal with my entire career:

Just because we speak softly doesn’t mean we act with hesitancy or indecisiveness. We can be a strong leader, setting the example, and making the tough decisions all the while communicating in a manner that keeps the conversation going and open to other people’s inputs.

I believe strongly in acting people-first as a leader, and I’ve found that when I’ve gone through interviews and/or job changes in the past there is a very common worldview that equates kindness with indecisiveness. It always takes a little while for people to realize that just because I believe we make better and more successful products when we treat each other well and truly listen to everyone’s input, it doesn’t mean I don’t know how to make decisions.

I haven’t quite been able to put my finger on why this misconception exists in the corporate world, but my current hypothesis is that collaboration gets confused with consensus, and there is a fear that “speaking softly” will result in a consensus culture where decisions take forever to be made. With that part—the dangers of consensus cultures—I do agree with. Consensus cultures often produce watered down, unexciting products. Products where endless rounds of give-and-take have worn down the original idea to a shadow of what it once was. Consensus cultures also wear down the teams working on the product, because no one really gets what they want, they just get some of it.

So I always try to make the point that I prefer collaboration over consensus. In collaboration cultures people understand that even though everyone gets a voice, not everyone gets to decide. People are able to voice their opinions and argue (kindly!) for how they believe things should be done. But it certainly doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree with every decision. That seems to help—so if you find yourself in a similar situation, give that framing a try!

Since this is something I have felt in my own career, it’s also something I try to be cognizant of in my dealings with those around me. Just because someone doesn’t dominate the conversation (see the “babble hypothesis”, which states that those who talk the most tend to emerge as group leaders), or refuses to engage in combative conversations, it doesn’t mean that their viewpoints and opinions are weak or invalid. In fact, the opposite is likely true.