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Leadership craft: defeating the delusion of deference

This article explores the negative results of excessive deference in the workplace. Then it sets out some thoughts on how leaders can act to encourage a culture of respectful yet open discussion and debate.

Time and again I hear leaders complain that their people don’t ‘step up’ in their roles. Unpacking this criticism, I find similar issues arise such as: ‘they don’t volunteer their ideas’; ‘I feel that I must check their work’ and ‘they don’t ask questions at key meetings, then I find them grumbling about decisions.’ There are a variety of reasons why this happens. However, a common thread is the delusion of deference. This article explores the negative results of excessive deference in the workplace. Then it sets out some thoughts on how leaders can act to encourage a culture of respectful yet open discussion and debate.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘deference’ as ‘polite submission and respect’. Many of us learn deference to superiors at an early age. We are taught to obey instructions from parents, teachers and others in authority. A measure of deference is no bad thing. Depending on the circumstances, deferring to others can help us keep secure, enable learning from more experienced people and provide opportunities for reflection before acting.

Many organisations have strong hierarchical structures and with good reason. Clear chains of command are essential for compliance with important legal procedures as well as for good corporate governance and to ensure high-quality products and services. However, excessive deference can be potentially self-limiting to the individual and harmful to the future growth of the business.

The delusion of deference is frequently a side-effect of ill thought out organisational design where leaders feel pressured to ‘know it all’. This attitude can result in domineering behaviour. Such leaders are worried about appearing weak and feel threatened when questioned. Naturally, followers soon learn to edit or mute their views as it will be clear from the leader’s attitude that speaking up is unlikely to be career enhancing.

The result: leaders end up believing all their ideas are the best. It stops them from listening and learning new things. It creates a false sense of omnipotence. It can breed poor judgment and patronising behaviour. It can also reduce the ability to relate to others as creative sentient individuals, and this diminishes their ability to grow the talent in the team. Followers end up believing their ideas are best kept private. It stunts personal growth and fosters an unhealthy parent/child state with the leader. This mindset shrivels self-confidence and inhibits critical thinking which can hinder progress.

Ultimately a culture of excessive deference breeds low self-esteem, resentment and negativity. By slipping into passive acceptance without questioning, we cease to think for ourselves and end up operating on autopilot. Over time, this can result in questionable choices, poor decision making, tolerance of bad behaviour, mediocre performance and stagnation for the individual and, ultimately, the organisation.

How do you avoid such a fate? Take your cue from Jack Welch, former chairman and CEO of General Electric. Mr Welch names ‘self-confidence’ as a key component of business success (the others being ‘simplicity’ and ‘speed’). Mr Welch states: “Giving people self-confidence is by far the most important thing that I can do. Because then they will act.” 

What will you do to encourage self-confidence in your followers, so they think for themselves and learn how to express well-constructed views and opinions? Here are some ideas to consider:

Practice humility. A characteristic of the best leaders, it is the opposite of arrogance. Followers are unlikely to tell you the truth if you come across as possessing an overbearing ego. Ensure you have channels of communication and independent feedback about your effectiveness as a leader. Role-model the openness you tell others you wish to see in them. Try reducing the trappings of power. Does the leader need to chair every meeting? Do you need to be involved in every decision?

Learn the art of effective delegation. Treat it like a business transaction. Agree to the terms of reference, the time scales, the acceptance of delegated authority and responsibility, and the limits of independent decision-making. Remember you have just delegated an activity and the decision-making responsibility associated with it. Now it is up to the person concerned to come up with the best way of making sure that it happens. Allow the person to get on with the delegated activity and complete it. Don’t second guess or undermine them by needlessly correcting their work because it isn’t quite the way you would do it.

Create a culture of questioning that encourages healthy criticism. Pause during meetings to ask, ‘what are we missing here?’ If you really want to open things up, ask ‘If we wanted this project to fail, how would we go about it?’ Then you have permitted people to be daring in their thinking. Then encourage them to flip their ideas to construct a robust project plan that will lead to success. Put some structure around this to draw the learning together, and you begin to unleash creativity and problem-solving.

Ask for input and practice listening – you know, really listening not just waiting to jump in with your view. A leader skilled in active listening will enable lively yet respectful debate and encourage different ideas to surface. You can try using ‘ground rules’ at meetings so that everyone gets an opportunity to speak and be heard.

Use open-ended questions to encourage a thoughtful and full response. It is the opposite of a closed-ended question, which will restrict reactions to ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers. Open questions also tend to be more objective and less leading than closed questions. Open questions typically begin with words such as “What” and “How”, or phrases such as “Tell me about…”. This approach encourages personal responsibility and demonstrates a readiness to listen. Open questions can also help people to think through their options and make more thoughtful choices.

Ensure everyone understands the importance and potential consequences of a decision. Having facilitated a full and frank discussion, the leader confirms the way ahead and makes sure there are adequate feedback loops with a transparent process for gathering these. If you make changes to previously agreed decisions, then communicate the rationale in an open and timely manner.

Beverly Landais PCC

Beverly Landais PCC

Certified Personal & Team Coach: enabling people to be at their resourceful best

We live in an ever-changing dynamic world. At best, this can be exhilarating and provide excellent opportunities for personal growth. At worst, it can be exhausting and stressful as you try to do it all, which can lead to the feeling that you are doing nothing well. Maybe you are in such a situation? Perhaps you have reached a point where you long to create the life that you want rather than the one that is happening? If so, I may be the right coach to support you. My purpose is simple. I work with people to help them be at their resourceful best. I bring all of my expertise to the service of my clients. My skill set includes 30 years of experience in business, including board level. As a Professional Certified Coach and Positive Psychology Practitioner, I can help you to think your options through, make better choices and do the things that promote wellbeing, bring personal as well as professional satisfaction and make you happy. I am particularly skilled in supporting those who are at a crossroads in their life. My coaching approach can help you gain a clear understanding of your values, motivators, drivers, strengths and consider the impact of blind spots – and what you can do to mitigate these. I work via video calls, by phone and email. Should you wish to arrange a 30-minute complimentary discovery session, please contact me via