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How to Respectfully Challenge Processes and Ideas

discussionOne of the toughest things an individual can do at work is to challenge another teammate’s ideas or make process improvement recommendations. Even when it’s not meant to be a personal attack, it sure can feel like it to the other person if the conversation is not approached with thoughtfulness and respect. However, it is absolutely possible to challenge ideas and authority while allowing a teammate’s dignity to remain intact.

The following are some best practices I’ve come to appreciate over the years when challenging and being challenged by peers, subordinates, and bosses:

What to do when a subordinate challenges a process

First and foremost, say, “Thank you for your feedback.”

One of the most valuable phrases in your box of leadership tools is the ability to show genuine appreciation. If a person who reports to you feels comfortable enough to share their opinion, thank them. It may feel scary for them to tell their boss that they think a process can be improved; it may have been their boss (you) who established the process in the first place, and they won’t want to offend you or hurt your feelings.

Don’t forget to take action. Review the process with your team and attempt to identify improvements that can be made.

How to respond respectfully to a peer who challenges your idea

This may be complicated if you don’t have an established professional relationship with the person.

Begin by asking your peer if you can open a dialogue with them. If they accept, ask open-ended questions to get more details. Then ask clarifying questions to ensure you understand the context of their questions and recommendations.

I may decide not to take a recommendation I receive from a teammate or incorporate another person’s ideas into a process, but it’s because I’ve weighed the pros and cons and I’ve chosen what I believe to be the best path based on the information I’ve gathered.

How to gracefully receive feedback from your boss

When I first began working in a professional environment, I did not receive feedback or challenges from authority figures well. When my bosses made recommendations, I had difficulty appreciating that they were making suggestions to help me improve my performance. Having developed confidence in myself and my abilities over the years, I now welcome feedback and questions; they help me be a better version of myself at work and home.

The most important part of being able to accept feedback or challenges from your boss is to begin with assuming the best intentions. They are probably not asking you for clarification or challenging the process because they want to waste your time; they are seeking to understand and trusting you to give them the information they need.

How to successfully challenge your subordinates

Start by separating facts from feelings. Then, ask questions.

The most common examples I’ve experienced in challenging those who report to me are when they disapprove of a process or idea, but have not yet considered alternative solutions. By asking your teammate questions, specifically “why” focused questions, you may be able to uncover where the disconnect between the process and your people lies. Once you discover that, you can work alongside your team to create newer, more innovative solutions.

Here’s an example: John comes to me and tells me he thinks the process for requesting PTO is inadequate and doesn’t help the employee. “This process is dumb,” says John.

My initial response may be to become defensive because I created the process; however, the best response is to ask questions. “Why do you think the process is dumb?” I ask.

John responds that it seems like there are never enough days for everyone to request the PTO they want. I ask why there aren’t enough days. John responds that everyone wants to take off Mondays and Fridays. A few more questions and we arrive at a concern about feeling overworked and wanting to spend time off to rejuvenate. Then, we can begin to look into options to modify our practices for requesting PTO or to modify how the agent is scheduled to help prevent feelings of exhaustion that could lead to burnout.

You may feel you know the answers to these questions, or that these questions are too obvious to ask, but you would be surprised how effective it is to give the other person the chance to lay out the argument and feel heard.

How to challenge your peers

Just as your peers may have important and interesting recommendations for you, you may find yourself in the position to offer a recommendation to a teammate. Be confident and be kind when you share them, be prepared to answer questions, and be willing to give your peer the benefit of the doubt.

How to challenge your supervisors

It’s best to make sure that when you challenge an idea proposed by your boss that you don’t do it in front of a crowd. Your boss may be open to hearing feedback, but it might embarrass them to be challenged in front of others where they are put on the defensive. Clarifying to them that you are seeking to understand feedback can help ensure that your boss gives you their full attention while engaging in the conversation.

Remember, our bosses are human beings and experience the same self-doubt that we’ve all experienced. When we provide feedback to those who influence our growth, we have the opportunity to be a part of their creative process and to help our teammates grow.

Using the tools above may take practice and a bit of personal work, but by building strong relationships and creating safe spaces for sharing feedback and ideas, we at once empower others and we become powerful.