Being ‘Provocative’ Brings Positive Results

I tell our candidates and employees that we want them to be provocative. As I’m responsible for human resources in our organization, some may hear that and think that I’m just setting ourselves up for a harassment claim, so perhaps this is worthy of further explanation.

Less than three years ago, my current mid-sized company (about 240 people in U.S. and India) was formed as a result of a divestiture from a larger company quickly followed by two acquisitions. In our desire to create our own identity and culture and to further inspire the passion of our team, we’ve since developed our vision and values. “Provocative” is one of our five core values, and my personal favorite.

Internally, we define “Provocative” as “challenging the status quo, engaging in healthy debate, and making ‘smart’ mistakes.” So, in my simple “Bonnie-language” -” ask questions, seek understanding, push back -” whether you are a member of the executive team, or a college student working a three-month internship.

“Provocative” is my favorite value for a few reasons. It’s different -” I challenge you to find another organization with “provocative” as one of its core values -” but more importantly it’s setting the expectation that it’s not just “okay” for our folks to speak up when they have a concern or a question -” it’s their “obligation.” Assuming we’ve chosen our team members well, we have 200-plus smart, motivated people in our organization, with healthy brains we can pick. If one or several of these individuals have a question, concern, or idea, we want to hear it, understand it, and address it. In my view, it’s ludicrous not to tap into this diversity of thoughts and insights.

That said, there are some ground rules. Being provocative is strongly encouraged in our organization; being rude or disrespectful is not. Suggestions I’d have for being “properly provocative” include:

  • Timing. Unless it’s an open forum for Q&A, don’t openly challenge the speaker during a large group presentation. Instead, listen carefully, collect your questions, and wait for the Q&A or ask for time with the speaker at some point following the meeting.

  • Confirm your understanding. Before challenging a situation, proposal, etc., confirm that your understanding of the situation is correct. Don’t just repeat what you heard, but translate it into your own words to ensure that you heard what the speaker intended.

  • Share your intent. Be direct in sharing your intent-”is it to gain better understanding of the situation or proposed solution? To offer alternatives? To help the speaker understand potential risks of the solution, and perhaps to help them better test their thinking? Letting the speaker know up front what your intent is-”and that it’s absolutely positive-”may help to remove any negative emotion that may otherwise be associated with someone who is being provocative.

  • Seek understanding, but not necessarily agreement. Some people may think that it’s not worth being provocative as they feel their suggestion won’t be implemented, the decision has already been made, etc., so why bother. My answer is simple: Bother because from my perspective, it’s important that those on our team understand the decisions that are made to the fullest extent possible, even if they don’t agree. Understanding and agreement are not synonymous. When you disagree, professionally explain why, your concerns, etc., and ensure that the other person understands your perspective. That said, understand that even if your perspective has been heard, it does not mean that the decision or plan will change. Successful leaders do not manage by consensus, but they do listen for opposing opinions and conflict, consider them, and then make what they believe to be the best overall decision.

  • Know when to stop. When you know you’ve been heard and the decision has been made -” stop. It’s hard to do, but you must get on board with the decision and help to ensure that it is executed flawlessly.

And if you’re the one being provoked? Same rules apply. Listen, ask, seek understanding and avoid the temptation to immediately defend your position -” especially if you are in the leadership role. This alone can shut down any other would-be provocateurs.

There’s obviously much more to this, and several books have been written on this topic. My intent with this brief writing was simply to provoke you to perhaps provoke others. Respectfully, of course.

Bonnie Schirato is vice president, Human Resources & Administration at Physicians Interactive, a division of Inc. Physicians Interactive was named one of Chicago’s 101 Best and Brightest Companies to Work For in 2011. She can be reached at [email protected].