Don’t. You cannot help those lacking the confidence to be open to help. Instead, find another person or another way to help them or walk away.

Earlier, I wrote about why you should hire people with enough confidence to be open to input. It built on ex-Stanford Business School Dean Robert Joss’ point that “Only 20 percent of leaders have the confidence to be open to input.” The other 80% won’t learn and can’t adjust. Even if they are right now, there will come a time when things change and they won’t be right. But they won’t want to let anyone see their “weakness.”

As has been attributed to Darwin, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”

We should all take a current best thinking approach all the time. No one is ever right all the time forever. All of us now need or will need at some point others’ perspective and help to ratchet up our current best thinking.

The current best thinking approach is almost magically freeing. Going to someone with a “straw man” says you don’t think highly of what you’re starting with. Going to someone with a recommendation says you think you’re right and want to convince them. Going to someone with your current best thinking says you’ve done the best you’re currently able to do and value their differential perspective, knowledge, skills and experience to help ratchet that up. It’s not that you’re weak. It’s just that they know things you don’t.

Net, don’t hire people not open to input.

But sometimes you have to work with them or for them.

When your boss lacks confidence

If they’re your boss, as Bill Berman and I laid out in our book, Influence and Impact, you have to do the job they need you to do, the way they need you to do it.

To be clear, you have to do that as the person you are. If you say what your boss wants you to say, but don’t do what they need you to do, that will come to light relatively quickly. If you say what they want you to say and do what they need you to do and it’s in conflict with who you are and what you believe, that will fail at some point.

So, putting the two ideas together gets you to do their job, their way, as the person you are. No false trade-offs. If you can’t do that, walk away.

You know the difference between a boss open to feedback and not. As I wrote in The joy of being wrong when a subordinate disagrees with you, There tend to be five modes from the boss’s perspective.

  • Don’t disagree with me. I’m the boss. Therefore, I’m right.
  • Disagree with me one-on-one in private.
  • Disagree with me in small groups (and never let anyone outside the family know we disagree)
  • Disagree with me in public – but politely.
  • Disagree with me in public, gloves off, brutal honesty to set an example.

If it’s a new boss, ask them how they feel. Then don’t believe them until you see how they react to others disagreeing with them. You can’t make anything work except level 1.

When a colleague lacks the confidence to be open to help

Take one of three approaches to a colleague not open to help: reframe, find someone else to help them, or walk away.

Reframe your help in the way most helpful to them, taking into account their personality, preferences, history and context. If you’re really trying to help them, you shouldn’t care how you get that done.

Find someone else to help them. They may be more open to help from a different colleague or a third-party or their mother. If you’re really trying to help them, you shouldn’t care who gets credit for helping them.

Walk away. Walking away is a powerful communication tool that many shy away from. Sometimes when you walk away, it’s permanent. If no one calls you back, shake the dust off your feet and keep going with your head held high. If someone calls you back, it’s a sign that your walking away made them change their mind about wanting your help. Good for them.