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Change leaders, it’s OK to undermine your authority

A friend recently sent me a link to a article with a rather catchy title: “How Not to Be ‘Manterrupted’ in Meetings“. As I was reading it, I thought about the way change leaders propose new ideas; and how it can either help or hinder adoption by others.

The author, Jessica Bennett, defines manterrupting as theunnecessary interruption of a woman by a man.” To illustrate the concept, she refers to the “Kanye West Incident” at the 2009 MTV Video Music Award: the rapper rudely interrupted best-female-video award recipient Taylor Swift while she was delivering her acceptance speech! Bennett talks about the negative impact of manterruptions in the workplace: “Women hold back. That, or we relinquish credit altogether. Our ideas get co-opted (bro-opted), re-appropriated (bro-propriated?)… or they simply fizzle out. We shut down, become less creative, less engaged. We revert into ourselves, wondering if it’s actually our fault. Enter spiral of self-doubt.” She concludes the article with a brief guide to help women, men, and even bosses stop the cycle.

Bennett’s writing style is entertaining and overall her guide makes sense to me, except when she writes: “Don’t undermine your authority with: ‘I’m not sure if this is right, but…‘ Speak authoritatively.”

I would caution change leaders – both women and men – against blindly following this recommendation. When advancing a new idea, it is often wise to undermine our authority by saying “I’m not sure if this is right, but…” I have been using variations of this sentence throughout my career. It has been of tremendous help.

It’s not about being loud or right, but about being able to execute

When we speak authoritatively we sound confident. It is also good for our own ego.

However, as the friend who sent me the link to Bennett’s article judiciously noted, “It’s not because someone is loud that he [or she] is right”. Besides, being loud or right is of no use unless we can execute.

To implement our ideas, we usually need to enlist other people. However, more often than not authoritative speaking doesn’t yield genuine buy-in.

Remember Newton’s Third Law of Motion – “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”? A new idea introduces potential motion away from the status quo; hence the Third Law applies. The more authoritative we are when presenting an idea, the more resistance we tend to get. It is action-reaction. When people are not really behind us, we have trouble executing.

Build-in engagement

Conversely, when we present a new idea by starting with something like “I am not sure if this is right, but…“, we are inviting people’s input. Because the approach is soft, we get a soft reaction (again, the Third Law of Motion). It encourages people to engage in a discussion – or a healthy debate – about the merits of the idea. It opens the door to build on each other’s ideas and work together on something better.

The soft, non-authoritative approach has engagement built into it. Because involvement is the foundation for commitment, it sets the stage for successful execution.

At times we might think that our idea got watered down through the process; that the alternate way the group produced is weaker than our original idea. Maybe that is true; or maybe it is just our ego clouding our judgement.

Regardless, it is important to remember the following: an imperfect idea that we can execute is far superior to a perfect idea that we have to shelve because of lack of buy-in.

Strategically undermining our authority

The take-away: when proposing a new idea it is actually more than OK to say “I am not sure about it, but…

It might feel like we are somewhat undermining our own authority. But we need to remind ourselves about the bigger picture: what matters the most is not our authority but our ability to influence and execute.

That is the source of true power!

So let’s not imitate the corporate machos with their über-authoritative ways. They are loud, but not necessarily right. They are shooting themselves in the foot by fuelling resistance to their ideas (action-reaction). Besides, we have enough machismo in corporate boardrooms already – which partially explains why organizations find it difficult to execute change.

No, let’s be smarter / more strategic in our approach: “I’m not sure if this is right, but…


You might want to check my earlier post titled “The most powerful sentence in change management” – which is about the four words “I need your help…“. You can use them to engage the folks to which you have just presented a new idea. For example: “I need your help in making this idea better“.


Presenting a new idea – authoritative vs. soft presentation:

When we say: “This is what we need to do!…

  • How we feel/sound:
    • Confident… but also:
    • Not open to dialogue
    • I know better
  • Usual outcome:
    • No real buy-in
    • Idea that will encounter resistance during execution

When we say: “I’m not sure if this is right, but…

  • How we feel/sound:
  • Usual outcome:
    • Genuine commitment
    • Idea we can execute with/through others

Copyright © 2015 by ORCHANGO. All rights reserved. | Photo credit: © Santacruz

Headshot Of Edmond Mellina, ORCHANGO's President & Co-Founder

Edmond is ORCHANGO's president & co-founder.

He is internationally respected for his expertise in nimble change leadership and culture change. For the past 30 years, he has been executing strategic transformations, building agile capabilities, and advising clients across sectors in Europe, North America and the Middle East.

He is a former corporate transformation executive in drastically changing industries: CIO at Delta Hotels when Expedia disrupted the hotel business; and VP Corporate Development & General Manager USA for the technology business of Envoy Communication Group when design and marketing agencies started to become digital.

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. We received this comment via LinkedIn:
    “Definitely the way to go, I have genuinely used it in the past and you can rarely go wrong with that type of approach.”

  2. We received this comment via LinkedIn:
    “Great article, Edmund. Humility goes a long way!”

  3. We received this comment via LinkedIn:
    “Absolutely right on Edmond … with the thankfully rare exception of having to turnaround toxic situations, open questions and collaboration trump closed questions and aggression”

  4. Thanks for the comments and feedback. I’m glad the piece resonated with all of you. Humility most definitely goes a long way. And yes, some situations (e.g. “turnaround toxic”) require a different approach.

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