When people ask you “So, what do you think?” they’re not really asking “So, what do you think?” That question is a euphemism for “So, we worked really hard on this and need validation. Please find a way to praise this.”
I was recently interviewed for an instructional designer role on a project. One of the interviewers pointed out that I would be joining a team of four that had been working together for three years. She asked me how, given the project’s 30-day deadline, I would handle becoming part of an existing team. My initial response was to make the point about the true meaning of “So, what do you think?”
I explained that this was a lesson I learned the hard way at the tender age of 23. On the first day at my first “corporate job,” I attended my first staff meeting. Because I had written and produced a newsletter for my previous employer, my boss asked me to take a few minutes and share my thoughts on the department’s newsletter. Now, what I thought she meant was that she wanted me to share my thoughts on the department’s newsletter. What I later learned was that she meant she was giving me an opportunity to make nice endearing comments that would help break the ice and encourage people to trust me.
I used to think “wet behind the ears” had something to do with residual birth fluids on a new born mammal. That night, I came to realize it refers to the tears that pool behind your own 23 year old ears as you cry yourself to sleep clutching your pillow like a security blanket. You see, after I gave my opinion of the newsletter which included pointing out the vast number of typos and poor layout, my boss called me into her office and informed that I had just alienated all of my co-workers. It was at that very moment that I learned the concept of “earning the right.”
Respecting the rule of “earning the right” means recognizing that every time we enter into a new situation, whether it is a job, a promotion, or a position on a team, we are instantly demoted to freshman status. The glorious achievements that earned us entry into the situation do not provide instant rapport, credibility, and trust with the group. We have to earn those through our actions within the current situation. We have to “earn the right” to provide constructive criticism, challenge existing decisions, and have our ideas considered and adopted. This transition process requires swallowing a big slice of humble pie. Despite my desire to quit, take a vow of silence, and join up with a cloister of monks, I returned to work the next day, apologized to my boss, and asked for her advice on how to mend the fences. It really wasn’t that difficult to humble myself. Although I had early wins in my first job out of school, my co-workers had far more corporate experience so it was easy to drop the arrogance and begin to learn from them.
The interesting thing about humble pie is that, like cotton candy, the older you get, the harder it is to choke down large quantities. Leaders with a track record of success typically find it harder to accept that humbling walk back to square one. Shedding the arrogance borne out of success and learning what you need to know about your new situation before trying to change it is a crucial first step.
Just three years later, I was managing a team at the same company. Our leadership group decided that it was more economical to outsource our department and sell our services back to the main company. In other words, we were going from cost center to profit center. A seasoned industry professional from a prestigious management consulting firm was brought in to spearhead the new organization.
We all sat around a conference room table; eyes anxiously darting back and forth awaiting his arrival. When he strode into the room (not wanting to dive into a trite metaphor, I’ll just put this image in your head, “foghorn leghorn”), he clearly had not considered the possibility that we might not trust or even like him. In an attempt to cast a vision of how much better things would be under the new arrangement, he began disparaging much of the work we had been doing. For example, he held up a black box containing a series of self-study booklets. He insulted the look of the packaging and the flimsiness of the contents. Little did he know, for the last 2 years we had poured our hearts into writing each booklet. He never bothered to find out that we spent months agonizing over packaging options, color schemes, and types of binding. In that instant, he demoralized the team, insulted us, and alienated everyone at that table.
I wondered how someone with so much experience and such a pedigree could make such a rookie mistake. How did he not know the “earn the right” rule? The man never recouped our trust. He walked into the room assuming that his past success and vast experience was enough to win us over. He made the mistake of thinking his resume bought him instant trust and credibility.
The team interviewing me wanted an outside resource for an objective point of view and fresh ideas. My response to the interviewer’s question about how I would handle coming into an existing team was simple. When asked, “So, what do you think?” my answer is tell me how we got to this point. What’s the history behind the decision and the cultural context? Chances are by answering my question; they’ll either validate their choice or recognize areas for improvement. Giving my opinion out of context is meaningless. Providing a sounding board for them to self-assess adds value and speeds me over my learning curve. Over time the deliverables I produce, my loyalty to the team and the value I add will earn me the right to proffer an opinion. As Michael Watkins states in his book The First 90 Days, “It is essential to figure out what you need to know about your new organization and then learn it as rapidly as you can.”
Remember, when you find yourself transitioning into a new role, bypass the hubris, no matter how tasty it looks, and go for a big whopping slice of humble pie.