This column marks the start of my ninth year of weekly public musings. It seems appropriate, in a hard-to-explain-exactly-why kind of way, to mark the occasion by completing the When To Keep Your Mouth Shut trilogy.
You should keep quiet, you might recall, in (1) contentious meetings, where speaking too early turns you into a partisan, eliminating your ability to construct a solution at the end that everyone can accept; and (2) negotiations, where speaking too quickly lets the other person off the hook. In both of these situations, silence can literally be golden.
So golden, in fact, that others in the room might well understand the speak-last strategy just as well as you do. What do you do then, when everyone in the room is waiting for everyone else in the room to make the first move?
Rather than suffer an entire meeting in collective silence, here are some tactics you can use to break the logjam without yielding the advantage.
The first, the Process Ploy, is superior, if you can make it work: When it’s clear nobody will make the first move, ask whether it makes sense to first discuss how the group will go about making its decision. Proposing a decision process doesn’t make you a partisan, so long as you’re willing to abandon your process in favor of someone else’s without heat or argument.
If it’s a yes/no decision, propose the “Ben Franklin” method: two columns; reasons to say yes in the first and no in the second. If you’re comparing alternatives, suggest a decision matrix in which the group evaluates each alternative according to a list of group-devised and weighted criteria.
The Process Ploy has one disadvantage: You have to respect the process too, whether or not it delivers the results you want. The good news about the bad news: Presumably, your own preference is the result of an equivalent logical analysis, so what you’re really doing is leading the group through the thought process you’ve already gone through yourself.
What makes this tactic particularly desirable is that however it comes out, you’ll get credit for breaking through the impasse and getting the group moving — far more useful than getting your way in the decision itself.
Another way to take charge without becoming a partisan is the Facilitation Gambit. It’s easy: Assume leadership of the meeting by asking another participant’s opinion. When you do so, it’s very hard to respond, “Gee, I dunno. I haven’t really thought about it much.” If your first victim does say this, just choose another.
And if everyone plays dumb? Suggest a task force to report back to the committee. If possible, recommend three members, exactly one of which is (a) looking for an opportunity to shine; and (b) thinks as you do. (Ideally, the other two will be both strong stakeholders and too busy to work on the problem.) As a fall-back, choose three people you think will do a good job.
But whatever you do, don’t volunteer for the task force yourself. Instead, volunteer to help them: “If it will help to have another pair of eyes look at things, feel free to call me — I’d be happy to give an advance reaction before we reconvene the committee.”
Before we move on, how should you react if someone turns the tables and puts you on the spot? Answer thusly: “I’m in a quandary. I can see several ways we could go on this and see both advantages and disadvantages to each of them. To be candid, I was hoping that if I listened to some of the rest of you who know the subject better, things would come into focus for me.”
Both the Process Ploy and Facilitation Gambit leave something to chance. If you can’t afford to do so, use an old standby — the ever-effective Two Cop Tactic. Yes, it’s the old good cop/bad cop routine: Arrange in advance for another participant — one you trust — to act as a passionate partisan during the discussion, pushing everyone else in the room to become a partisan as well. You stay out of the fray until the end. (Make sure you both agree who has which role before the meeting. “Me? I thought you were going to be the bad cop this time!” would be bad.)
Right about now you’re likely thinking that all three of these stratagems sound more than a bit manipulative. Of course they do. They can’t be otherwise.
Leadership means getting others to follow. Strong leaders rarely compel — most often they get others to choose to follow them.
The difference between this and manipulation is a mighty fine line.