You’re chairing a team meeting and you ask for suggestions. Farrah, relatively new to the group, makes a proposal. She’s reading from prepared notes and it is clear that she’s put some thought into this. You’re about to thank her when a voice comes from the other end of the table. It’s Sam, a 10-year veteran of the organization. “We already tried that and it didn’t work,” he says in a weary voice, sighing audibly. Farrah looks down, crestfallen. The others shift uncomfortably in their seats and stare at the table in front of them. What do you do?
How you handle Sam’s objection will have ramifications beyond today’s meeting. Some of the factors you have to navigate:
- Farrah deserves recognition for preparing for the meeting and speaking up. You want to encourage her to keep offering ideas and suggestions.
- Sam might very well be right. In most teams there is one person who can be counted on for a critical viewpoint. If this person can express their criticisms in a respectful manner, he or she is a great asset to any organization. However if this person shares their views in a way that undermines others, he or she will create resentment and lower morale. Some managers will push to silence or remove someone like Sam. If Sam’s behaviour crosses the line into workplace harassment, you do need to do something. If the behaviour is not so severe, removing Sam sends the wrong message about critical engagement. Every team needs a Sam (or Samantha).
- What about the rest of the team? If you show irritation with Sam or otherwise discourage him from speaking up, you risk sending the message that it is better to keep one’s opinion to oneself. The team may not like Sam but he is still their colleague and you are their manager. A public scolding could turn them against you very quickly.
- Sam may need some coaching, but you can hardly take care of that in the moment. You need to send the message that critical feedback is welcome, as long as it is delivered respectfully.
How to work with the Sams and Samanthas of the world is a bigger topic. When you are faced with dismissive criticism in the moment, the best thing to do is to lead by example. Be curious, open to feedback, and respectful to everyone. Here’s what that might look like:
Repeat Sam’s objection, “You say that we already tried that and it didn’t work.”
Draw him out. Ask him to elaborate. “Tell me more. Please remind everyone of what happened when we tried that.”
Repeat back and summarize the details.
Turn back to Farrah. Give her a chance to defend her proposal. Ask, “How is your suggestion different from what we tried in the past?” If Farrah really is suggesting something that has already been tried, ask, “Have the circumstances changed? Should we try it again?”
Ask the rest of the team if they have anything to add.
Thank Farrah, Sam, and anyone else who spoke up.