Great Not Big is about what I’ve learned from building and running a software development company. It’s taken me a long time to clearly understand and fully appreciate the issues around decision making and acknowledgment. I probably still have things to figure out, in fact. In the meanwhile, I think it would be helpful to both company leaders and their employees if this dynamic was more widely discussed.
As a leader, you must make decisions and take actions in the face of incomplete and ambiguous information. That’s part of your job as a clueless leader. If you lead smart people who care, you will be doubted and questioned, sometimes vehemently. The barrage of skepticism, fear and doubt can be discouraging. By taking your position and holding it, you allow others the luxury of acting merely as critics, not deciders and doers. They are actually relying on you to hold your ground, even when they don’t explicitly acknowledge it, and appear in fact to oppose you. When done thoughtfully, this balancing force can be useful. But even in the best case scenario it can be difficult for the person holding the ultimate decision making authority.
You must have enough confidence to persevere, even when you know rationally that you might, in fact, be wrong or that your planned action might not work out. If your nerve fails you, you make a decision by not deciding. The group you lead stagnates, misses opportunities, becomes inflexible, and might not achieve greatness.
Assuming your confidence carries the day, you make a decision and move forward. If you lead a sufficiently large group of people, your plans can’t be implemented by you alone. You are reliant on others to make the venture a success, sometimes even the same people who were skeptical or fearful.
If things don’t go well then the doubters are simply proven right. A bad idea can’t be rescued with good execution, so the people who helped implement aren’t to blame. Few people are likely to say it, but they’ll remember your bad decision the next time you propose something.
If things go well and the decision was a good one, you give credit to the people who helped implement the plan. Suddenly, no one remembers their earlier fears and doubts. The result speaks for itself. How great that Bob and Sally did this excellent work! Kudos all around. Except, often times, for you. Having forgotten their opposition, no one thinks to say, “Hey, good call. You were right.” You of course can’t say “I told you so”, even when it’s the truth. Part of your job is to acknowledge good work. Credit and praise seems to flow down, not up.
You’d think that with a record of good decisions you’d have some trust built up and this phenomenon would lessen. It might, a little, but in my experience, not as much as I think it should. There seems to be a strong bias towards remembering the failures over acknowledging the successes, a bias against change, and enduring skepticism.
I’m not ashamed to say that this is hard for me. I certainly have other mechanisms for satisfaction that don’t rely on the acknowledgment of my peers: pride in your team and the accomplishment, seeing something improved or an innovation brought to life, the satisfaction of knowing you were right, sometimes a monetary reward, publicity or credit for the company’s success. While I aspire to be entirely intrinsically motivated, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that it makes a difference to me whether the people I lead acknowledge the good decisions I make. Nirvana would be a little trust and good faith the next time around.
No one works with a greater group of people than I do. Thoughtful, caring, generous, smart people. The fact that I struggle with this dynamic tells me it is pretty deeply wired into our behavior as humans in groups. Or maybe it’s just me?
- Atomic Ownership, Part 5: Distributions - May 1, 2019
- Atomic Ownership, Part 4: Financing employee ownership - April 4, 2019
- Atomic Ownership, Part 3: Valuation - January 2, 2019
- Atomic’s purpose: to be a company where work matters - November 5, 2018
- Elevating & distributing “glue work” flows out of our core principles - October 18, 2018