Why leaders need to accept that being challenged is part of their job

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A few weekends ago, I had the pleasure of facilitating a company off-site for a client I’ve been working with for a while. I’ve had the privilege of coaching Tobey in his capacity as CEO of his fast-growing start-up for a little over a year now, but it was the first time I’d had the opportunity to meet the rest of the team. 

The location he had picked for the retreat was great and I was excited to spend a few days immersed in his business. I had planned a lunch-time team activity, and the afternoon had been blocked as a team goal setting and strategy session for the year ahead.  

Keeping everyone awake and engaged immediately after lunch is never easy, but I assured Tobey that nobody would fall into a food coma on my watch! 

We had set up the room in a U-shape style and Tobey had kicked off the afternoon articulating his high-level aspirations for the upcoming 12 months. 

During the lunch break (and activity) I had been introduced to everyone in the team. Of the 20 people in the room, 15 of them had been with the company for 2-3 years, while five team members were still relatively new having been there for 6-12 months. As Tobey talked through his vision, I looked around the room and I could immediately sense two different reactions from the audience. Many of the longer standing team members had a distinct ‘we’ve heard all this before’ somewhat bored look on their faces, while the newer members in the group listened more attentively and looked far more curiously at Tobey’s slides. 

After about 20 minutes, Tobey was discussing a process related to client success when Kasia (pronounced ‘Kay-sha’) who had recently come on board in a marketing capacity asked, “why is that the approach you’re wanting, Tobey?”. 

“Because we’ve always done it that way”, he replied. 

“So what?”, Kasia asked. 

You could have heard a pin drop. 

If anyone had been even remotely slipping into a post-lunch food coma, they had just been snapped right out of it. 

I noticed the person sitting next to me discretely scribbling the letters ‘C.L.M’ on his note pad before sliding it towards his neighbour. 

Career. Limiting. Move. 

The silence lingered, and I could see that Tobey looked completely discombobulated. 

As the official retreat facilitator, I knew I had to quickly step in, and fortunately I was able to diffuse a potentially hostile situation. 

We often talk about the importance of being courageous as a leader. We talk about why it’s important for leaders to push the boundaries when it comes to innovative strategies. So why do so many leaders react defensively when a team member questions them or challenges the status quo? 

Reacting defensively, aggressively, or [insert any other hostile-type adverb here] should never be the go-to response to a team member whose question or comment (in either a private or public forum) might be slightly controversial. Besides, leaders who welcome (and embrace) challenges from their team members or ideas that might shake things up a bit, demonstrate humility and empathy, creating an environment where individuals feel respected and motivated enough to speak up. 

One of the topics I chose to share with the team during my ‘intervention’ was a reference to Mary C. Gentile’s Giving Voice to Values: How to Speak Your Mind When You Know What’s Right – a book which aims to empower individuals to act and communicate in a way that brings about positive change with organisations. In her book, Gentile encourages readers to engage in constructive conversations and find common ground, rather than adopting a confrontational approach, which is exactly why I had brought it up, as I knew I wasn’t the only one feeling the heat rising in the room. 

Leaders need to accept that being challenged is part of their job. 

Remember, the best ideas often come from unexpected sources, so by welcoming challenges, leaders can create an environment where creative thinking flourishes. Besides, no leader can possibly have all the answers, and when leaders are open-minded and willing to listen, team members will feel more valued and respected, fostering more trusting and stronger working relationships. 

As a leader, it’s important to appreciate that your team members come from different backgrounds, experiences, and expertise. Be open to their ideas and tap into a diverse range of perspectives. You never know, together you might even generate new ideas and innovative solutions while at the same time creating a more collaborative environment. 

Getting defensive in the face of being challenged by their team members can stem from a variety of both psychological and organisational factors. 

Research shows that leaders often tie their identity and self-worth to their role and the decisions they make, and when their decisions are challenged, they might perceive it as a personal attack on their competence, causing them to become defensive. Some leaders also fear that if they entertain alternative perspectives, they might lose control over the situation or be perceived as indecisive. Challenging perspectives might also trigger feelings of inadequacy, leading to defensive responses as a way to maintain a sense of authority. 

Leaders who actively work on their emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and willingness to learn from their team members are more likely to respond to challenges in a positive and constructive manner. 

Managing emotions when encountering situations such as a team member questioning decisions or challenging the status quo is a crucial skill for effective leadership. 

It’s important to consider the validity of the challenge or question being raised. Reflect on whether there might be merits to their perspective and whether it aligns with the organisation’s goals. It’s also important to understand that it’s natural to feel triggered but aim to maintain professionalism by recognising your emotions without letting them dictate your reaction.  

Remember that as a leader, your reactions set the tone for the team, so put yourself in your team member’s shoes and try to understand their perspective.  

This will help you respond more empathetically. But if you find your emotions getting the better of you (as was the case with Tobey), it’s perfectly reasonable (and completely professional) to take a short break to gather your thoughts. This can prevent you from saying something you might regret later. 

Challenges and disagreements are part of leadership.  

Having said that, controlling your emotions is a skill that takes time and practice, which is exactly why leaders should encourage their team members to challenge the status quo, shake things up, and be somewhat controversial. 

When describing the interaction between Tobey and Kasia earlier in this piece, what I didn’t mention was something Kasia said as I facilitated the activity to help diffuse the tension in the room.  

“Rather than saying, ‘we’ve always done it that way’, how about you say, ‘we’ve never done it this way before’ which puts a completely different perspective on things”. 

After another lengthy silence, Tobey apologised for the way he had initially reacted and promised to become more open to hearing different perspectives. He assured the team that moving forward nothing would be off the table. He was officially open to new ideas. 

A very successful outcome to an unexpected activity. 

Remember,  hellomonday  can provide support to every leader, reinforcing habits through curated learning and impactful coaching, helping leaders to feel more comfortable embracing challenges from their team members and creating an environment where individuals feel respected and motivated. 

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