Listening to everybody’s opinions is an unquestionably healthy feature of open organizations, inclusive cultures and good leadership. But it requires a forgotten etiquette. People need to make sense (!) and listening is not a guarantee, nor a necessity for reacting to all, let alone accommodating to all.
Some discussions in teams look and feel like a permanent focus group, but without a clear ending or outcome. Some free-flowing conversations are important, needed, part of the health of the social network that the organization is. Whilst we need lots of these, the problem often starts when we are not sure what it is that we are seeking.
It has to be clear when we are seeking opinions, when we are seeking expertise (which is more than an opinion and assumes evidence based views) and when we are seeking ’input’, which usually implies we will do something with it. The latter is often a source of either disappointment when that input is not incorporated, or a source of messy and ‘uncritical crowdsourcing’ when people try to accommodate all opinions.
Many problems around the inclusive culture come from mixing up the desired outcomes, even in formal meetings. If seeking opinion, say so. If seeking input, say that it may or may not be incorporated in a final outcome. Somebody will have to make a judgement. If seeking expertise, say which one. Experts are not usually experts on everything, and they themselves mix opinions with evidence. If in free-flowing conversation, say so.
Many organizations complain that people’s opinions don’t matter or at least do not seem to be taken seriously. At worse, nobody asks. That’s a bad deal for a culture. In my experience, the worse cases I see are the opposite, when some sort of over-inclusiveness virus has been injected and nothing seems possible unless and until countless opinions have been sought.
Managers and leaders often forget that they are paid (amongst other things I suppose) to make judgements and that they are not simply facilitators of ‘opinion traffic’ ending in 30 post-its, classified in 4 clusters and prioritized with the top 5. A computer/piece of software does that much better.
So, next time, what are we talking about? what are we supposed to do with this? And a few other zero cost checkpoints.
Incidentally, the worse case of naïve ‘input seeking’ is the one when people feel compelled to go to senior management ‘for input’, perhaps out of courtesy, or out of lack of confidence, or secretly (or not) seeking some sort of blessing. Like any mortal, senior management will give you input. But be careful what you are looking for, you might get it. Tell me how you are going to explain later that, thanks for their input, but actually will not be incorporated after all.