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Should You Disagree with the Boss?

Source | LinkedIn : By Nirmalya Kumar

When teaching, I often used to observe that your boss works much harder than you do and, more often than not, is smarter than you. Nothing riled up the class more than this, but such provocations are extremely important. The role of a professor is not to tell students “what to think”, but instead “to make them think” and provide frameworks on “how to think”.

After listening to their disagreements to my provocation, I would pick on an individual, and ask: well, if they aren’t working as hard as you and are not as smart, how have they managed to become your boss? What are you missing?

Often, this discussion led to the realization that people tend to take one aspect where they have more expertise, knowledge, or skill, and generalize that to the capabilities needed to be the boss. But, technical skills matter less as one goes higher up the organization ladder. It is the price of admission. What matters more is the experience that one brings to the job, as reflected in the wisdom, emotional intelligence, and social capital of the individual. In addition, everyone believes they are smarter, better looking, and more personable than reality. Both misjudging the criteria and overestimating our capabilities leads to the erroneous conclusion that we are smarter than our boss.

This is not to say that there aren’t poor bosses. Rather, my contention is that for reasons given above, it is seldom true, and always better to assume it is not. If by chance, one does have an unworthy superior, it can be used as an opportunity to learn from their weaknesses. Learn fast, because they are not going to last in their position. In the long run, rationality prevails and cream rises to the top.

Now there is a big difference between having a healthy respect for the superior to having an unhealthy slavish mentality. Returning to India after 30 years, I was taken aback by how hierarchical managerial structures are. You could see this in how people behaved in the presence of their superiors as well as the absolute power that bosses demanded and commanded. For example, it took more than a year to get everyone on my floor on a first name basis.

Watching people in meetings with the Chairman would have been amusing, but for the detrimental effects on the organization from this subservient behaviour. I recall a strategy discussion where the CEO remarks to the Chairman: My instinct is to always agree with you! Despite the presence of several junior executives, I could not resist smiling.

After a few months, I began to see meetings as races between people trying to guess what the Chairman believes so as to express it before he could. This behaviour led me to ask the Chairman to hold back from revealing his stand on any matter until closer to the end of the meeting. Once his opinion was known, it effectively concluded any substantive discussion on the topic.

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