This post was co-authored with my colleague Holly Newman.
Have you ever questioned the guidance of a GPS navigation system? The calm and definitive voice tells you to turn right -- but your knowledge of the area makes you want to veer left. Now you have to choose: Should you trust the electronic authority, or trust your own expertise?
In business today, many situations cause us to question authoritative voices: A manager asks you to spend time on a drawn-out analytical project that you know will produce little value; a customer insists on a delivery schedule that is likely to produce inventory gaps; a client asks for shortsighted solutions when you know that alternate approaches will produce more significant, long term results. All of these situations present a choice between following a prescribed path, or your own instincts.
It's a tough choice, because most of us are programmed from an early age to defer to authority even if we don't understand or agree with the instructions. As a result, we tend to disregard our internal compass and follow along, even when the data tells us otherwise. For example, most people do not question a physician's diagnosis. Yet studies of autopsies have shown that doctors misdiagnose fatal illnesses about 20 percent of the time.
Not long ago we talked with a CEO who was frustrated by this pattern of deference. Despite his numerous communications about empowerment, people throughout his organization rarely raised questions or challenged their bosses about the nature of their work. What this CEO didn't fully understand is that empowerment to challenge authority is not something simply granted from above; it also needs to be grasped from below. People have to empower themselves -- which requires a significant psychological and emotional shift contrary to most people's upbringing.
So how can you counter your conditioning and question authority? Here are some ways to start:
Stop and listen to your inner voice. Give yourself a moment to take a deep breath and consider what is going on. Ask yourself, "Are there other ways to approach this task or assignment?" Do your instincts and experience suggest alternatives to doing what you've been told? Is there data to support your position or is it just a hunch?
Constructively question. If you think that doing things another way would make a material difference, talk to your boss (or customer or client). Why do we do it this way? Would you be open to different ways? What would be the payoff and the risk? Can we experiment with an alternative? Would it be worth doing some further analysis?
If the result of this dialogue is permission to proceed, that's great. If not, you might consider whether you've picked the right battle or presented your case effectively. You also could consider whether you have the courage to change course anyway and deal with the consequences later. In some cases it's better to ask for forgiveness rather than beg for permission.
Reflect. Finally, no matter what you've done, take some time to reflect on the experience. Remember the sensations and triggers that prompted you to push back against authority. How did it feel? What thoughts crossed your mind? Then, think about how you proceeded. What can you learn from the situation? How might you handle it differently in the future?
When trusting your instincts, often you'll make the right choice, and at other times you won't. But if you keep at it, you'll learn to more accurately read your internal compass and come up with effective means to act on it. But if you don't empower yourself to do this, who will?
How do you access the expert within you?
Cross-posted from Harvard Business Online.