Challenge Culture

In most small businesses, the decisions are made by the owner.  Where the company is going and how it’s going to get there are dictated from the top.  Owners need to be strong in their convictions and be willing to make tough decisions.  That’s what makes them successful.  That all makes sense.  

Running a small businesses take a lot of grit.  It’s not easy to start a company from scratch and build it to profitability and beyond without being tough, hardworking, and decisive. 

But what happens when you grow to the point that you have a team working for you? 

Do all decisions get made at the top and everyone down the line just accepts what is decided and goes along with it?  If that happens, then the leader can become arrogant and blind to their own weak spots.  If everyone just goes along to get along then you actually end up with a culture of yes-people.  This doesn’t necessarily serve the best interests of the company. 

“It’s common for people who lack power or status to suppress their dissenting views in favor of conforming to the HIPPO — the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion.” 

-Adam Grant, Think Again 

Sometimes it’s because people are afraid to speak up and challenge the leader for fear of repercussions.  Other times it may just be that people are fine with what’s happening and don’t see any reason to challenge the status quo. 

However, as the company owner, you’re better served if you find people who will challenge you and your opinion. 

In his new book, Think Again, Adam Grant suggests that instead of building a team of agreeable people leaders instead create a 

“Challenge network, a group of people we trust to point out our blind spots and help us overcome our weaknesses. Their role is to push us to be humble about our expertise, doubt our knowledge, and be curious about what knowledge we don’t have.” 

I believe Grant focuses his work primarily on large companies where you have room to include a variety of people with an assortment of personalities.  Some of whom he recommends be “disagreeable, critical and skeptical” hence creating a challenge network within your organization. 

In relating this to small businesses, I wouldn’t recommend that you stack your team too heavily with disagreeable or critical members.  However, I can see the value in having people around you with differing opinions.  I’m not sure it will happen organically when you hire your first or second employee.  I’m not even sure you could figure out ahead of time what a person’s inclination would be.  Whether they are going to be a yes-person or if they are more likely to be skeptical and question your decisions. 

If you’re lucky, by the time you get to several employees you may have one or two who are willing to challenge your authority occasionally and question your decisions.  Encouraging alternative opinions before decisions are made and truly listening to them can help create a challenge culture.   

As a leader you need to be open to others’ perspectives. Remember, you don’t know what you don’t know. 

This means putting your ego aside and not taking it personally when someone objects, pushes back, or points out why your ideas aren’t great.  It takes a big person to be open to criticism.   

As the owner and leader of your own company, you certainly don’t have to include others in decision making, you can lead from the top and find a team of yes-people.  But is that the smartest way to grow and stretch your company to greater heights?  Do you really believe that your way is the only and best way?  It’s doubtful that you’ll get it right 100% of the time so why not take advantage of having a team who comes with their own perspectives?   

It takes some trust building.  You need to let your team know that you want to hear what they have to say.  You can’t shoot down the first person to speak up and expect anyone else to ever open their mouths and contribute.  It doesn’t mean you blindly adopt every new suggestion anyone else makes or change course without thinking through alternative ideas.  However, it does mean swallowing your pride, being open to discussion and listening openly when someone does risk speaking up against the HIPPO. 

You ultimately still get to decide, it is your company after all.  But there may be value in creating a challenge culture where everyone’s ideas are welcome.   

You might find a few hidden diamonds in the ideas of your team that change the trajectory of your company for the better. 

It can be lonely at the top and if you are just starting out, only have a small team who aren’t inclined to speak up or have yet to nurture a challenge culture within your company then enlisting the opinion of qualified outsiders might be helpful. 

Listening to an qualified business advisor, trusted coach, or even a good friend who also runs their own company could be a way to create a challenge culture from the outside.  It gets lonely at the top when you’re running a small business and having a neutral third party to bounce ideas off can be super valuable.  If that person is willing to challenge you and give you honest feedback, then be willing to listen.  To them, you are not the HIPPO, you are someone they care about and are there to support, so hopefully, they are more willing to voice their differing opinions. 

Whether you create a challenge culture internally or externally, or both, being open to criticism, differing opinions, and contrary ideas can help you avoid your own blind spots. 

Growth happens when there is innovation and creativity, not when everything is kept the same all the time.  Set your ego aside and encourage dissent.  Encourage differing opinions and see what happens, you might be surprised at the innovation and success that come from sharing the decisions making. 

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