It might be counterintuitive, but the best leaders should be last to speak — not first. From years of working with CEOs and other senior leaders, I’ve learned that the best ideas arise in an environment where everyone feels free to express themselves.
Often the best way to encourage people to voice their opinions is for the leader to keep quiet. It’s not enough to declare, “I welcome your ideas.” Good leaders create the space for others to contribute. They don’t interrupt or disagree when others are speaking. They pay attention to their own body language and work to appear neutral, letting the discussion happen without them. They wait until other members of the team have weighed in before offering their viewpoint.
In the workplace, people have a natural tendency to defer to the boss. Too often that encourages the CEO to act like a dictator. The other members of the senior team acquiesce, keep their thoughts to themselves, and ideas dry up.
When the boss starts conversations by saying, “Here’s what I want to do and here’s how we’re going to do it,” it stifles others’ thinking. At that point, asking for ideas seems like an empty gesture.
I once worked with the CEO of an engineering company who was planning to retire. As he prepared to give up day-to-day management of the firm, he realized he had a problem. Everyone in the company was used to doing things “Ken’s way.”
That tendency was especially acute among his senior leadership team. They could not bring themselves to challenge his ideas or offer suggestions of their own. He once told me, “They acted like a bunch of wimps. If I went to the staff and said, ‘I have an idea,’ they’d say, ‘OK.’” It had gotten to the point where they were no longer aware they were doing it.
The CEO had to find a way to convince his team that he wanted them not just to implement his ideas, but to improve them — or even reject them. The breakthrough came when someone had an inspiration: If anyone was observed “just doing it Ken’s way,” the others would let him know he was sucking up to the boss by audibly sucking on the back of their hands. After that, the dynamic changed. When a team member got caught kowtowing, the rest of the group began making sucking sounds, laughter ensued and ideas flowed more freely.
The CEO also learned an important lesson — to keep his mouth closed. As a result of the new culture, the company’s market share rose by 10 percentage points, and Ken was able to retire with minimal disruption after creating a succession plan and building a stronger team to smooth the transition to a new CEO.
Changing behavior is difficult for strong leaders who are accustomed to asserting themselves and getting their way. Nevertheless, for the good of the organization, the leader needs to demonstrate to his or her team members that their opinions are genuinely valued. Better ideas are born when good ideas are challenged.
Effective leaders recognize that they can boost performance and the bottom line by setting out goals but not dictating how to achieve them. They trust employees to make intelligent decisions, give them the resources necessary to achieve the goals and then get out of the way. They communicate respectfully — and don’t require any sucking up.