Too Many Suck Ups and Yes Men in Your Office?

Last Updated May 16, 2011 5:31 PM EDT

No one wants to work for a bully who constantly shoves her opinion down everyone's throat. But - at the other end of the spectrum - staff will wonder if you dodge and weave instead of giving your opinions or run down the clock in meetings by asking everyone else what they think.

It's a constant workplace challenge: How can you voice your opinion and share what you know, while still inviting input from others? Or put another way, how do you avoid cultivating a culture of suck ups and groupthink?

Former finance industry honcho Robert Pozen provides a great answer. In a Harvard Business Review blog post, he describes his concept - which I've also found highly effective - of using "rebuttable hypotheses" to guide a discussion. Specifically, the leader suggests a course of action, but then explicitly invites feedback and challenges to it. And, the trick is, he has to be willing to change course if a better idea is presented.

This strikes the perfect balance between providing leadership and simultaneously encouraging others to share their views. After all - even if hearing negative feedback can be hard - no decent leader wants to encourage "yes man" behavior from subordinates. Here are three variations of the "script" I've used successfully, and which can help you make the rebuttable hypothesis your own.

1. "Let me throw out a possibility, and you guys can play devil's advocate."
Why this works: With these words, you're showing leadership by sparking discussion, but you're not necessarily committing yourself to a course of action. By requesting critical feedback, you're moving the dialogue forward and teasing out nuances it would be hard for one person to generate on her own.

2. "There are a few ways to approach this, and I'm leaning toward X. What do you think?"
Why this works: This is a great way to generate buy-in from your team, because you're inviting their opinions at a crucial moment. (The converse - "consulting" people after a firm decision has been made - just highlights their lack of power.) The framing above acknowledges that a variety of options exist and indicates that you've contemplated the situation but aren't yet "sold" on a decision, so the input of your team truly matters.

3. "Here's my current thought about how to handle this - what blindspots do you see?"
Why this works: This phrasing is helpful when you already have a clear idea of what you want to do - you're not opening up a vague brainstorming discussion - but you also want to make sure you're not missing anything critical. Encouraging your team to become troubleshooters focuses their energy and makes sure your decision has been vetted by others who may know things you don't ("we can't launch that day because the entire operations staff will be in Borneo for a team-building retreat").

Using the "rebuttable hypothesis" technique is a quick way to make your team feel more involved - while generating better ideas and results. What are your strategies for getting good feedback and input?

Dorie Clark is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the National Park Service. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.
image courtesy of flickr user, mark sebastian