by Eddie Pipkin

Image by Peter Dargatz from Pixabay

I was out for a sunrise run on the beach last week, when I found myself approaching another runner coming in my direction.  It was one of those moments when I realized that, if nothing changed, we were on an intersecting trajectory.  This sort of thing happens all the time on my normal neighborhood runs.  You’re cruising along on the sidewalk, oblivious, when suddenly someone approaches, walking their dog.  You’re forced to make a split second decision about who will yield to whom.  On the wide, sandy shore, however, it was a bit comical.  The beach was probably fifty yards wide, but unless one of us (or both of us) shifted a few feet left or right, we would find ourselves crashing into one another.  It’s a metaphor, people, for the way we constantly find ourselves on a collision course with others.  It’s a tricky calculation, deciding who is going to defer to whom in a given scenario, what the timing will be, and exactly how wide to make the detour.

I try to do my best to defer to others on the running trails (and beaches and sidewalks and neighborhood lanes).  It’s a simple exercise in humility, adjusting course and taking a few extra steps in order to make things slightly easier for someone else.  But this simple course adjustment is also a whole lot easier than deferring to someone else when ego is at stake in making a decision or charting a course forward in a leadership scenario.

I want to do one thing.  Somebody else wants to do another thing.

Or we agree on the importance of the thing to be done, but I want to do it one way, and the other person wants to do it in a completely different manner.

Who prevails?  It’s complicated.

If we are the senior person in the partnership of decision-making, we can enforce our priority and have our way.  But if we are always enforcing our preferences, and we never let our partners’ views prevail, we will destroy their confidence and weaken relationships.  Occasional deference is important in a relationship.  We have to let other people’s priorities overrule our own from time to time if we are to build trust and nurture confident leaders (who know not only that we will trust their judgement when it’s something that really matters to them, but also that we are not afraid to let them fail, as long as their opinion is sincere and their efforts are whole-hearted).

If we’re the junior person in the partnership of decision-making, we should understand that deferral will be our starting point in the process.  We should be in the business of stating our case thoroughly and completely when we seek to chart a different course.  We should share our passion and enthusiasm, but not let that energy slip over into anger when we don’t get our way.  We should not be grumps who undermine the senior decision-maker, but we should give the benefit of the doubt to our superiors, bosses, and elders, that they have our best interests at heart, and, most importantly, the best interests of the institutions we serve.

If we are equal partners in decision-making, whether working in teams, serving on a committee, or coordinating with collaborative partners, the process of who defers to whom gets interesting.

  • We may have personal history with the other decision-maker(s). At some time in the past, there may have been bad blood between us, which means we have knee-jerk reactions to not deferring in the present: “No way I’m doing what she wants!”  On the other hand, we may have a wonderful, happy history with someone, which might lead us to defer to them excessively because of our warm and fuzzy feelings.  What we should be doing is judging each case by its own merits and putting our personal feelings aside for the good of the project at hand.
  • We may have an institutional history with the other decision-maker(s). Maybe the past has not been personal, but we have been participants in a long history of decision-making in which things have always been done a certain way, but now doing things in this certain way (“the way we’ve always done it”) has become a drag on progress and a brake on change.  The context of an institution’s history is important, but it can’t be the sole factor in defining the future.  And likewise, the same people can’t forever be making all of the decisions if we are committed to the concepts of growth and change.
  • We may have context or insight with which the other decision-maker(s) is/are unfamiliar. Or they may have unique context or insight to offer us.  It’s important to make space for understanding context and welcoming different perspectives and the lessons of different life and work experiences when we’re making decisions that affect everyone.  (As an example, when I’m running, I make it a point to defer to people with dogs – it costs me little, and it just works out better for everyone involved.  Also, I have had to learn to accept the reality that most people I pass are wearing ear buds.  I am the kind of guy who offers a friendly ‘hello,’ and I’ve had to learn that non-acknowledgement of this gesture does not mean people are haters – just that they are currently distracted by a great podcast.)  We can only appreciate contexts and perspectives different from our own if we create a space where we encourage them to be shared.  And we can only expect people to appreciate our contexts and perspectives if we make it a point to share them.  Assumptions are consensus killers.

Humility and collaborative cooperation are biblical qualities that serve us well in all these scenarios.  Scripture gives us wholesome guidelines for how to conduct ourselves as we are deciding whether to defer or whether to stand our ground.

Romans 12:3 (NIV) offers this advice:

“For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.”

Colossians 3:12-15 (NIV) lays out an entire framework for working together in harmony and common purpose:

“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.”

That’s a solid strategy for figuring out whether we will embrace someone’s else’s desires in the moment or stick with “my way or the highway.”  Of course, even if we are convinced that our wisdom should prevail, there are ways to do that in which we can be advocates for our own priorities while still making other people feel valued in the process.

  • Pick your spots. Don’t die day after day on the battlefield of having your own way.  Be judicious in your insistence that your analysis is the best.  Let people have their say especially when it involves stuff that doesn’t matter that much in the big scheme of things.
  • Communicate clearly, calmly, and completely. Never (or at least rarely) use the phrases, “Because I said so!” or “Because I’m in charge!”  Always start from a place of communicating as clearly and positively as possible the reason for having the opinion you have.  Help people understand your vision, your priorities, your motivations, and your thought processes.  You will probably have to repeat these points frequently!  But by doing so, you show respect for others; you build trust.
  • Solicit feedback (sincerely). Even when you have to decide on an unpopular course, ask people for input on how to do the thing you are setting out to do.  How can it be done better?  How can it be done in such a way that you bring along those who would choose differently, still making them feel valued as a stakeholder?  How might we incorporate different views going forward or create separate spaces for alternatives to happen?  Ask for the feedback and mean it when you ask for it.  Take it seriously, and act on it when you can.  Insincere solicitation of feedback does real damage to relationships.
  • Don’t make a big deal out of your deference. If you choose to defer, don’t make a huge production out of how awesome you are for allowing someone else’s preference to prevail.  Don’t keep reminding them that you stepped aside.  Don’t keep campaigning for the “Humble Leader of the Year” trophy.  Be cool and keep it low profile.
  • Defer and drop it. Once you’ve signed on for going a different way than you originally wanted to go, don’t keep circling back around to your original preference.  That means no constant critique of the new path (as in “I told you this was a bad idea” or “I knew this wasn’t going to work out,” etc.).  Be supportive of the new course and supportive of the person who championed that course.  If things don’t work out so great, that’s not a time for recriminations.  Save it for the next time a similar decision needs to be made, then offer the appropriate evidence.
  • Think ahead. Be proactive, not reactive.  One of the ways to be successful and build strong relationships and productive collaborations is to be working ahead.  If you’re the kind of leader who is always scrambling to make decisions in the moment, when the stakes are high and action is imminent, there will always be a sense of chaos.  If we look ahead, we can lay the groundwork for future decisions.  We can focus on building the values that will guide those decisions.  We can build a narrative that supports our long-term vision so that others have an intuitive understanding of where we’re trying to go.  Decisions then flow seamlessly along the path of that narrative.  People buy into the journey, so that even when we choose to defer from the main path, the detours are slight, and the journey keeps moving purposefully towards our goal.

What are your own processes for deciding when to defer and when to insist on your own way?  Is there a healthy culture of deferral in the organization in which you serve?  Do people respect one another’s perspectives and priorities and honor them by deferring to one another, so that everyone’s passions get a place of honor from time to time?  Share your own tips and stories, and we’ll provide them with a priority place of praise in the comments section!