In the United States business culture, we have an idiomatic expression called “The Elephant in the Room.”
The expression comes from the idea that if you were having a meeting with a bunch of colleagues and there was literally an elephant in the room, the natural response would be to say, “Oh my, hey there’s an elephant in the middle of our conference room.”
The expression used in the business context refers to not a literal elephant but a figurative one. In many businesses, there is some topic that is on everyone’s mind — the so called elephant in the room that everyone sees — but everyone is too scared to talk about.
A classic example is when you’re holding a project planning meeting going over the schedule for a project that takes place over the next 6 months. Normally this would be a pretty routine meeting.
But if the meeting is taking place at a time where there are layoffs going on in the company, it’s an entirely different story. In this case, the elephant in the room — the thing everyone is thinking about but nobody is willing to say out loud — is "what is the point of creating a 6 month project plan if half of the people in the room will be fired before then?".
One of the most useful things you can do as a consultant or as an industry professional advising a senior executive in your company is to say the thing that everybody is thinking, but everybody is too afraid to say out loud.
For some reason, from very early on in my career, I had this habit of being able to point out the “elephant in the room” to a senior executive in a meeting of peers and direct reports, and do so in a way that wasn’t at all threatening to the executive.
Most people were too afraid to speak their mind because they were afraid the executive might get mad and that their job might be in jeopardy. The huge irony was that because I was often the only person in the room willing to tell the senior executive when he or she was wrong, somewhat counter-intuitively, my job was usually extremely secure.
I originally spoke my mind because I really did not care if anybody would fire me. I had a good resume. I knew I could get another job anytime I wanted to, so I simply spoke the truth.
This continues to this day. For some of my consulting services, I have a waiting list for new clients that runs out a year in advance. I tell my clients the truth 1) because it’s the right thing to do; and 2) because I really don’t care if they stop being a client due to not wanting to hear the truth.
It was during this process that I discovered that there was more to the story than I first understood. In addition to being fearless about being fired, it gave me the freedom to disagree with senior executives often. And through all those disagreements, I slowly learned how to disagree in a way that senior clients really appreciated.
It turns out whether or not you fear you might lose your job isn’t the the most important thing. The most important thing lies in HOW you disagree with someone more senior than you.
I’d like to teach that to you right now.
To grasp this approach, you need to understand that every conversation and every disagreement occurs at two levels.
The first level is defined by the idea.
The second level is defined by power.
The best way to illustrate this point is by an example.
If you say: "2 + 2 = 7"
...and I say: “That’s the stupidest thing I have ever heard”
My statement to you is being translated across both levels — the idea level and the power level.
My implied messages are:
1) Your idea is wrong
2) You are stupid
Now if in response to my comment, you say, “Victor, you are right.”
Then what you are implicitly saying is:
1) Victor you are right; my idea was incorrect.
2) Victor you are correct; I am stupid.
Now nobody really ever wants to agree with someone who thinks they are stupid. It’s just human nature.
You see, the second part of the message (“you are stupid”) creates a power differential between me and you. When I imply “you are stupid,” I’m essentially saying that I’m better than you or you’re worse than me. I immediately shift the power differential between the two of us.
This is where much of politics comes from.
Often the political debate seemingly takes place on the idea level, but in reality it’s just a way to mask the true conflict — at the power level.
It is possible to disagree with a senior executive's IDEAS without turning the disagreement into a challenge of the executive's power.
In other words, you want to say: 1) "your idea is incorrect," WITHOUT saying or suggesting 2) "You are stupid."
When you can separate the disagreement over ideas from the disagreement over who has more power between you and the other person, you will find senior executives open to you disagreeing with them.
In fact my entire career, literally from the first day of work after Stanford, has been focused on disagreeing with people older and with more experience and more power than me. That’s what I did in consulting, in industry, and what I do with my consulting clients today.
Many people have “yes” people around them. I’m never one of them. I’m always telling my clients, my bosses, my senior executive colleagues “no.” And they so appreciate it because once you’re in a position of power, you discover everybody ends up being afraid of you. They become too afraid to tell you the truth. It is a HUGE problem for senior executives.
So here’s how you do it.
You deliberately phrase your disagreement in a way that challenges the senior executive's idea without ever threatening their sense of power and authority.
It’s actually surprisingly easy to do.
It’s very, very simple.
Here’s how you do it.
When a CEO says: "I think 2 + 2 = 7."
Whatever you do, you never say: “That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard.”
In fact, you don't even say, “That’s wrong.” (some CEOs would appreciate it, but some with more fragile egos would not like to be embarrassed by their mistake.)
Depending on the person, you might use the phrase, “When I calculate 2 + 2, I get a different answer.”
The statement phrased this way conveys disagreement, in very gentle terms, at the idea level — but NOT at the power level.
Now to some extent the approach you take is culturally dependent, both in terms of what country you’re doing business in as well as the culture of the specific company you’re working in.
For example, the impression I get from my former German colleagues is that in Germany you would disagree in a more direct way. “2 + 2 does not equal 7. It equals 4. You were incorrect.” And having not worked in Germany myself, the impression I get is a statement like that would be readily accepted by the client because factually the response is accurate.
While I have not worked in Germany, I have worked with a number of German colleagues in McKinsey trying to advise clients in the United States.
To make a comment like that to a U.S. client makes me cringe. It’s like watching a car crash in slow motion — only the driver (or in this case, the McKinsey consultant from Germany) doesn’t realize he’s in the process of crashing.
So the approach you use will depend on the circumstances. That said, one particular style of delivery you want to have in your bag of tools is the “gentle” deliver. It’s a way of disagreeing exclusively at the idea level, and is said in a way that isn’t a challenge at the power level.
Here are some additional examples.
Executive: “I am thinking of shutting down the South America division. Victor, what do you think?”
Me: “I have an alternative point of view you may wish to consider.”
(Notice how I introduce a difference of opinion over the IDEA, but I say it in a way that does not challenge the executive’s authority, power, or competence.)
I know this may be very subtle, but it’s also very important. As a consultant and as a young rising star in industry, I NEVER had more power and authority than the people I interacted with. My clients and my bosses were ALWAYS older than me, with at least 10 - 15 years more experience than me.
A direct challenge to their competence, power, or authority would be taken in a “How dare you... you little 24-year-old know-it-all” reaction.
This is ESPECIALLY the case if you’re young and went to an Ivy League caliber school. To some extent, executives expect the hot-shot Stanford or Harvard kid to be arrogant. That’s the stereotype some of them have about Ivy League graduates. And in some cases (at least with some graduates), that perception is based in reality .
In many cases you have to double your efforts to not turn a disagreement of ideas into a power struggle.
In fact, when you deliberately avoid an authority challenge when the other person somewhat expects it, it’s very disarming. They relax and more importantly, they start to listen to what you have to say. That’s because they know a disagreement from you isn’t threatening. Whereas a vicious disagreement from an antagonistic colleague may sometimes be a threat to that executive's power within the organization.
So the next time you disagree with a senior executive (or even a peer), ask yourself: are you disagreeing ONLY with their idea, or are you threatening their sense of power, competence, and stature in the organization?
Whatever you decide to do in your specific situation, just remember every disagreement happens at two levels — ideas and power.
NEVER forget that.
For additional strategies, tips and tutorials for how to work with senior executives, take a look at my How to Succeed in Management Consulting training program. It’s the ideal program for a new consultant or someone working in industry where part of your role is to make recommendations to senior executives. To learn more, Click Here.