Leadership to me seems largely revolving around the topic of persuasion.
- How do you get people to do something important but not exciting? (e.g. documenting a feature). How do you reposition the unattractive activity in to a norm, and make people want to do it?
- How do you nudge people’s mentality or attitude? Spotting an overarching problem with an employee (e.g. snubs his/her nose at writing end to end tests), how do you get them to come around and eventually even lobby others?
- How do you communicate a significant decision? (e.g. going with one technology over the other). You won’t be able to please everyone, but you can minimize pushback and resentment with some.
- How do you handle yourself when the person you are talking with has a polar opposite interest to you, and a decision has to be made nevertheless? (e.g. you’re trying to decide which team will on board a new hire).
All people naturally fall somewhere on the scale. Even looking at an individual, you may come down harder on one side at any given day depending on how well you slept, if you have indigestion, or if you just happen to feel impatient. People respond to these persuasion styles differently, and like with anything I’ve found that people gravitate towards others like them, and this is when adjusting to your audience comes in to play. Culture also factors in to this. Coming in to an international organization, ignoring outliers, the difference between, say, an Israeli and an English employee is almost comically apparent.
Defining the aggressive and measured persuasion styles
To elaborate on the aggressive and measured approaches, let’s use an example of a manager involved in a technical decision. The manager in this scenario is exposed to information earlier than his team members, and a decision has to be made regarding the high level architecture of a future project: Which technology stack should be used: Tried and true A or new and exciting B? To drive home the point, in this scenario the manager develops a strong opinion favoring A, based on thorough exploration, past experience and strong expertise in the problem domain. Now the question is – How do you as a manager gain deep acceptance of A and minimize pushback within the team?
The aggressive approach would be to expose the manager’s opinion early in the process, fully embracing an inherent managerial influence, and highlighting the benefits of option A. An even more aggressive approach would be to avoid presenting B as an option in the first place, or not framing the conversation as a discussion but as an announcement.
The measured approach, even in the case of the manager’s strong preference for option A, is to allow a full and honest discussion to take place. The manager would present their opinion late in the process or perhaps never at all. The manager would either stay out of the discussion entirely, or help facilitate an investigation led by the team itself, looking in to the benefits and drawbacks of options A and B. The manager would be presenting both options in a completely neutral way, as if the manager holds no opinion on the matter. The manager does not present A and B, rather the options present themselves by an external quasi-Buddhist selfless conscious creature. The advantage of course is that a decision that comes from within the team has a much stronger stickiness. From the perspective of the manager, a possible risk is that the team can land on B. At that point the manager has to choose their next move, especially in the case that the manager is convinced that choosing B will cause real and irreversible harm to the organization.
Different but equal?
This is when I tell you that while both approaches are different, one is not better than the other. Well, no. What wasn’t obvious to me is that it is not merely a matter of style. The measured approach is in fact common to all senior and effective members of my organization and is therefore implicitly encouraged, to the extent that this topic becomes relevant when it is time to talk about bonuses and promotions. While the lack of tolerance for a different tendency was surprising to me, it is easy to understand why in an Engineering organization, a measured approach would be beneficial. To explain why I think that an organization rewarding measured persuasion might not be fully optimized, I claim that it is reasonable to draw a line from persuasion style to a wider discussion about personality traits. For example, the ability to regulate emotions like passion or agitation, or even something like a person’s tolerance to disagree in public forums.
Point being, if you tell me that a person has an extremely measured persuasion style, I will be able to tell you with reasonable certainty about other character traits that that person may possess.
- A natural tendency to avoid stating their opinion on controversial issues
- Shying away from being the sole and visible decision maker (and in extreme cases: cover your tush syndrome)
- Not being willing to cut a discussion short when it becomes clear that further debate will not change anything
When an unscientific method is preferred in an Engineering organization
My claim is that at times, an aggressive decision maker is what you’re after. Sometimes timing is what will make a difference to your success and you cannot afford the unfortunate cost of inclusivity or the uncertainty the decision making process introduces to your organization. A team or organization filled with hot shots will be too quick to make mistakes or too slow to identify one. An organization filled with academic style deliberates will be too busy to ensure that the problem was looked at from all angles to notice that a more nimble competitor has already gained market share. An organization that explicitly favors this type of mentality may implicitly create a homogeneous echo chamber and conflate an attitude that uses disagreement as a tool to find truth  with those that are just unwittingly difficult. Sometimes it is unfair to decide by committee, or to involve people impacted by the decision, and to be unwilling to make a hard decision yourself. Sometimes we are too quick to consciously decide not to make a decision and let the scenario play itself out, rationalizing for inclusivity and transparency, thereby ignoring the human cost to the people involved by a persistent uncertainty. I would go further and say that the line between an overly measured demeanor and cowardice is thin.
I’d try and reframe this discussion from one where one approach is clearly superior to the other, to a discussion about diversity of thought. While as a rule of thumb I prefer measured persuasion, I’ve found that both approaches have their merits, and that a team flourishes with a healthy mixture of attitudes. I would encourage people in a position of influence to try and create an atmosphere where both approaches are ultimately tolerated, and in hiring stages I would be wary of biases that lead us to recruit people just like us.