Skip to main content
How to Develop Leaders

How to Lead Up: The Positive Power of Negative Conversations

Okay, so welcome to another one of my Todd talks, which always exists to equip you with ideas that you can use immediately to improve your leadership, make a greater difference in the world, and help other people do the same. Today I’m going to share with you the story of Charlie, and the lessons that he learned about influencing senior stakeholders in hierarchical environments. Do this wrong and your credibility and company can suffer, but if you can do it right, you can protect your company from costly business problems in ways that will enable your career to flourish. And here’s what Charlie told me after attending one of our Leading Beyond Boundaries programs, where we teach people how to lead up, down, across, and outside of their organizations. Here we go.

“The financial regulators recently asked us to require that our clients who hold monies for third parties demonstrate that they’re registered with reputable professional associations. To comply with this request, a team in another department created an eligibility questionnaire for our clients to complete. The problem was that the questionnaire only asked if our clients were affiliated with a narrow set of associations, instead of the diverse array of industry-specific associations that our clients are actually registered with. So when our clients couldn’t demonstrate that they were registered with any of the associations on the form, hundreds of them automatically received letters from us saying their accounts would be closed in 60 days.” That’s bad.

“My attempts to solve this problem for my clients in the months prior to attending Leading Beyond Boundaries fell on deaf ears. I talked to the team who created the questionnaire and they couldn’t be bothered because they had just spent 12 months creating it and were onto the next project. To boot, my managing director and they’re managing director were equally nonplussed. But LBB helped me realize that I hadn’t been talking enough about the consequences of this problem persisting. That number one, our reputation would be damaged, not only with the hundreds of customers who’d received the termination letters, but with all the people they would complain about our mistreatment.

Number two, that we might lose 20 million pounds in deposits. And three that we might get hit with substantial fines by the regulators. So right after Leading Beyond Boundaries workshop, I clearly articulated these potential consequences to my MD. And wouldn’t you know it? I finally got his attention, which activated him to talk to the other team’s MD. And two weeks ago, we got sign off for industry specific questionnaires that satisfied the regulator’s requirements. And that’s going to prevent a big loss of deposits from the bank. What could have been a nightmare scenario will only end up being a minor annoyance for our clients.” All right, so what does this story teach us about influencing stakeholders in hierarchical environments? I actually think a lot of things, but I want to focus on just one for now. And that’s the importance of talking about negative consequences if we want for positive outcomes.

And this is a bit counterintuitive for many of us, because if you’re like me you’ve probably been taught to emphasize the positive not the negative. But it’s really important to do nevertheless, it’s really important to talk about the downsides of not confronting and dealing with certain issues in order to get action, for at least two reasons.

One of them is motivation. Unfortunately, people tend to be more motivated to avoid problems and pain, than they are by the pursuit of pleasure. And number two is about the value of honesty, whether you’re talking about good things or bad things, because they equally put our fellow adults in a better position to make informed choices that are theirs. And this is particularly true if you can be specific about the downsides, and notice how good of a job Charlie did at just that. He was able to quantify a potential loss of 20 million pounds in deposits, and hurting the bank’s credibility with hundreds of customers. So if you want more positive outcomes, and you want your senior stakeholders to take you more seriously, be really clear about the negative consequences of not dealing with important issues. Okay, so thanks for listening. I hope you found this valuable, and I’ll see you next time. But in the meantime, be candid, be compassionate, be collaborative, but most of all be curious.

Leave a Reply