Consult versus Tell: the fine leadership balance

by Jane Mason Bloggers Circle December 2009

My team mate and I had an extraordinary meeting the other day with a CEO who seems to be about to swing from his habitual “consult” leadership style into a more “tell” style.  Ordinarily that would not worry me too much except that he has been at the extreme end of “consult” which means that his point of view tends to mirror that of the most recent visitor to his office in the endless string of one to one meetings he has with his team.  This is a Bad Thing for many reasons and in his case it is Super Bad because he has a divided team populated with one or two quite strong characters and one or two people who are out of their depths in new roles they are expected to fill to perfection with absolutely no support.  Panic?  Chaos?  Conflict Avoidance?  Depressingly, all of the above.

His journey from the extreme end of “consult” into the world of “tell” is in danger of becoming a violent lurch inspired by a spectacular loss of patience. Whilst I think he is right to be impatient, I think he should be taking a close look at his own behaviour rather than just the behaviour of the team members, and take a moment to consider the wisdom of lurching from (passive) “consult” to an overactive ”tell”.  There is a third way:  Active consultation can be extremely effective and need not be time consuming.  However, it does require conflicts to be aired and managed.  “Tell” on the other hand normally forces conflicts even deeper underground, leading to subversive behaviours of the worst kind.

If you want to avoid conflict, here is my advice:  live alone and stay home.  If you want to lead an organisation, however, you had better accept that confict is inevitable and, properly managed, it is a healthy, creative force for innovation and change.