Sep 292011

Challenging Authority

Challenging Authority

My dad told me a joke once about a kid who as a teenager thought his father was the dumbest person he’d ever met. But then, as the punchline goes, “By the time I’d graduated college, it was amazing how much the old man had learned.”

The older we get as humans, the more we realize how little we know — and how fallible we are. One of our 13 core values at Return Path gets right to the heart of this one:

We challenge complacency, mediocrity, and decisions that don’t make sense

I will note up front that this particular value statement is probably not as widely practiced as most of the others I’m writing about in this series of posts, but it’s as important as any of the others.

Very few things make me happier at work than when an employee challenges me or another leader — and quite frankly, the more junior and less well I know the employee, the better. No matter what the role, we hire smart, ambitious, and intellectually curious people to work at Return Path. Why let all that raw brainpower go to waste?  We thrive as a company in part because we are all trying to do a better job, and because we work with our eyes open to the things happening around us.

I have no doubt that some real percentage of the decisions that I or other leaders of the company make don’t make sense, either in full or in part. And I’m sure that from time to time we become complacent with things that are running smoothly or quietly, even if they’re not optimal or even moderately destructive.  That’s why I’m particularly grateful when someone calls me out on something. We have made great strides in and changes to the business over the years because someone on the team has challenged something. We’ve terminated employees who were poisonous to the organization, we’ve reversed course on strategic plans, we’ve even sold a business unit.

One of the things we do well is blend this value with one I wrote about a few weeks ago about being kind and respectful to each other.  The two play together very nicely in our culture.  People are generally constructive when they have feedback to give or are challenging authority, and people who receive feedback or challenges assume positive intent and nothing personal.  We specifically train people around these delicate balances both via the Action/Design framework and a specific course we teach called Giving and Receiving Feedback.

It takes courage to challenge authority. But then again, nothing great is ever accomplished in life without courage (and enthusiasm, so the old adage goes).