The curse of the last word

Every six weeks we start working on a new set of improvements and enhancements for Basecamp 3. A new 6-week cycle just began last week so our designers and developers have been collaborating closely. The early days of any initiative are an exciting time. There are lots of concepts, designs, and code being tried out, tossed out, kept in play, and so on. I’m a hands-on guy, so I relish times like these. The further away I am from the product, I’ve found, the less I enjoy my job.

But the process has also highlighted a problem I’ve struggled with for a long time: As the CEO and majority owner of my company, I ultimately have the last word. But because of this, sometimes any word, suggestion, or recommendation is taken as final even when it wasn’t meant to be. I’ve mentioned this to several other CEO-owners lately, and I’ve come to realize it’s a situation many of them face as well.

The way I see it, the last word should always be the last resort, reserved for the most delicate and important issues, ones that can’t be resolved without my input and that affect every one of my employees. Otherwise, I’d much prefer that other people make decisions. If people are waiting around for me to tell them what to do next, then I’m not doing my job well, and I haven’t created an environment where they can do their job well either.

The root of the challenge is that the people I work with closely hear from me quite a bit. I tend to offer up a number of ideas, a lot of suggestions, and plenty of feedback about the work we’re all doing together. Ninety-nine percent of the time, a suggestion from me is just that — one of many ideas on the table. But power dynamics being what they are, no matter how carefully I phrase them, my suggestions are often considered more seriously than those offered up by others. I don’t like that.

I’ve been trying a variety of approaches to see whether I can change this dynamic. I’ve tried stepping back a bit, forcing myself to be less involved day to day in the actual work — but that ultimately results in the opposite of what I want. People tend to notice when someone who doesn’t speak up a lot suddenly chimes in, and I want my words to carry less weight, not more. I’ve tried wrapping my suggestions in friendly disclaimers — “Hey, this is just a thought” or “Hey, just a small suggestion” — but it doesn’t feel right to be stepping so gingerly when the point is to have a free exchange of ideas. I want to be a natural part of the conversation.

I’ve also tried offering my thoughts directly to the people on the team, one on one. I’ve made some progress this way, because it prevents group acquiescence to what I say. But it’s inefficient and still defines my ideas as somehow separate from the wider process.

As it turns out, the tactic I’ve had the most success with is to come full circle and speak up even more in group settings. The more I join the discussion and throw ideas into the mix, the more I diminish the value of each individual piece of my input. But there’s an important additional reason I like this direction: The deeper involved I am, the more chances I have to highlight ideas that are better than mine. And the more I do that, the more I can begin to demonstrate that my suggestions can be easily tossed aside. Which is exactly what I want. I want the best ideas to emerge, not my ideas.

Then, when I really do need to make a last-word decision, I can be very clear about that. I can be definitive. I can announce that this decision is the decision, and here’s why.


A version of this article was originally published in the April 2015 issue of Inc. magazine.

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