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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Minnikin

Who teaches us to challenge at work?

We go through school, college and university learning how to adapt to those in authority. We get a vast understanding of how to please our teachers, work in the way that they want us to work and ‘be’ how they want us to ‘be’. We work hard, prepare well and do what we need to get good grades.

So when we get our first jobs it’s not a huge surprise that we don’t really understand the ‘rules’ of work. We tend to just assume that we have to do what we’re asked to do. No questions asked.

When I started my first ‘corporate’ job, my manager asked me to do a task a certain way. I remember thinking that their method wasn’t particularly efficient and I could clearly see a better way… but I did what I was told. This happened again and again in those first few years of my career. I could see a better way, a more effective way, a more ‘budget friendly’ way of doing things, but I kept quiet. I trusted that they knew what they were doing and thought that I didn't have a say in how things were done.

Looking back it seems ludicrous that I didn’t feel like I had “permission” to ask questions, to make suggestions and challenge decisions. It was such a waste. I might have added some more real value to the organisations I worked in. I knew I had good ideas. But I didn't always share them as I wasn’t asked.

I was never ‘taught’ how to challenge constructively. I didn’t know how to influence people in authority. I was still adapting. It took me a while (and a whole lot of frustration) before I figured out how I could start putting my ideas forward, and how I could question my manager.

I decided to bring a little bit of my natural curiosity and a touch of mischief into my work. I started asking more questions on a one-to-one basis, seeking to understand more about what my boss was thinking and what was important to them. This gave me an understanding of what my ‘wiggle room’ was.

Then I got round the permission thing by seeking forgiveness, rather than asking for permission. I did feel I was constantly ‘grassing’ myself up. “This ‘thing’ happened… so this is how I solved the problem….”. Then I would hope that I wouldn’t get into trouble. 99 times out of 100 I was fine - getting the result was seen as more important.

It turned out well for me. I was seen as someone who had initiative and could get things done. Often this meant going a little outside the existing process (but that’s a story for another time).

So, who teaches us how to challenge authority? This is something that we have to learn ourselves, often through trial and error! We’ve been talking about this in our community recently and it really shouldn’t be this difficult. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we all worked in organisations where challenging was the norm and having constructive conversations wasn't so terrifying!

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