In my class last night, we discussed a case entitled “Just Trying to Help.” A manager was assigned a new project, and another manager had previous experience with something similar. The core question was whether he should speak up and offer his input. Most agreed that he should. But at what point does it become “butting in” when he should back off and let the current manager take the project in the direction she prefers, even if it seems destined to fail?
I included the case in my syllabus because I think it’s a central question for many of the aspiring managers who are enrolled in my course. On one hand, it’s natural to want to help but if the culture isn’t receptive to cross-collaboration by speaking up you could be labeled as interfering or worse. I have been in too many situations where those who keep their mouths shut and continue to do just their own work – however mediocre it may be – are rewarded with longevity in the organization instead of being chastised.
A key element is to consider how the “advice” can be framed as a genuine offer of help. Instead of making the recipient defensive, positioning it as an optional gift – a way to make them look good instead of you – can go a long way in furthering the conversation. By imparting a legitimate “take it or leave it” mentality – meaning that you truly are accepting if the recipient totally ignores the feedback you are sharing – can also help lessen resistance and open the door for sharing.
It reminded me of a teaching trick: instead of asking “Who has any questions?” professors are encouraged to rephrase it to “Ask me two questions.” It sets the expectation for dialogue. Similarly, managers assigning a new task can encourage collaboration by asking the group “Name someone not on the task force who has experience or resources that could help this project.”
The bottom line is that there needs to be openness in multiple dimensions: employees willing to take a risk to speak up and offer assistance; project managers receptive to input from multiple sources; and managers who create cultures open to making the organization stronger, no matter whose idea it is.