Several incidents in recent months are making me realize that one of the challenges of leadership, particularly leading groups of motivated individuals, is knowing how to pull back and make sure everyone has a chance to contribute.
I’ve been in multiple rounds of group brainstorming and design activities recently (the kind where you build a tower made of spaghetti), and I notice that unless the moderators advise on some ground rules, the usual result is that idea first shouted out, or the one proposed by the socially dominant person in the hierarchy, is the only one developed. In fact the worst spaghetti tower designs are usually those done by all CEO teams.
The lesson we’re supposed to learn is to rapid prototype and work through multiple ideas, but I think it’s also learning to listen to and respect people’s expertise. Susan Cain in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking points out that a Harvard Business School (HBS) exercise has the same issues. In this case, the goal is to explain which items should be salvaged from a wreck in the wilderness. Again the most dominant voice usually “wins” even if a quieter group member actually has some experiene in the wilderness. Although group works is supposed to “leverage diverse voices”, in this case the most expert voice was lost.
One of my own challenges has been to learn to listen to others more carefully and also to create an atmosphere where people are willing to tell me what they really think. In the past, I’ve sometimes been an overlooked voice, so it’s ironic that I am not always a good listener when I have some authority. I have to confess that I often have preconceived notions of what’s right and it can be hard to suspend judgement and listen.
But the times I have been able to understand what the other person was saying have all led to much better outcomes. Sometimes my role as leader isn’t to talk to be create a place where everyone can talk.