Are You the Elephant in the Room?

Elephant Face

One of the toughest parts of being a leader is walking the line between democracy and fascism. When it comes to the essential elements of your mission, where does consensus become chaos, where does direction become dictatorship? This is one of the most important questions of style managers face.

And the answer simply isn’t clear. I can think of examples where charismatic despots lead teams through innumerable obstacles to great success. I can also think of cases where expert consensus builders worked their magic to make a team of hundreds behave as one. There are many paths to success to be sure.

Clearly some leaders are just naturally better at one role than another, and they simply don’t know how to be a despot or a democrat. You may feel that you can’t be one or the other, so why even consider the issue? Just do what you do best.

But this is more than a question of style, and it’s more than about playing to your strengths. There are times in every project when you need to be one or the other, and you need to both recognize when these cases occur, and find a way to play the appropriate role.

One of the most common situations where I’ve seen managers struggle with this balance is in meetings. The team gathers together to consider an important question, to entertain ideas from across the spectrum, and try to work out the best solution. But before the meeting really even gets going, the leader chimes in with their thoughts on the subject and kills the whole party. They may do it because they think they are just “priming the pump”, to get the conversation started. They may think they are just “tossing their ideas in to the mix” for all to consider. Or they may do it because they are frustrated at the ideas presented so far. It doesn’t really matter… what they have done is kill the whole conversation.

What they have done is kill the whole conversation

What so many leaders don’t see is how this behavior, as innocent and well-intentioned as it may have been, and as delicately as it may have been presented, shuts down people on the margins. When the leader of a group expresses their thoughts on a subject, three kinds of bad things happen: 1) the sycophants come running to the front praising the wisdom from on high, 2) the timid rush to the corners, hiding from the light, and 3) those that may have a different opinion fear risking their standing in the organization by contradicting the leader. None of these are good for genuine discourse.

I know, I know, I can hear you now: “But I said it just as an expression of my opinion! I prefaced it with ‘this is just my thoughts on this, but…’ I laughed and smiled when I said it, for gosh sakes!” I’m terribly sorry, but all that doesn’t matter. You’re the boss. Years and years of conditioning have told people that what you say, goes. All protestations to the contrary not withstanding, by expressing your opinion, you are guiding the discussion. And, more importantly, shutting off input from valuable members of the organization.

[Side note: a similar issue is how, inevitably, the casual thought of the leader gets translated into an edict, and develops a life of its own (see my post here on this topic).]

I’ve also hear managers tell me: “well, if they are too meek to express their opinion in this forum, then they and their opinion aren’t worth much.” Hogwash, that’s just the bully in you talking. In my experience, some of the most insightful people are those who sit out of the direct line of fire and have the luxury to observe from a distance. After all, still waters run deep. You need to seek out these people. You need to get some way to hear them out, whether in this kind of forum or in a more comfortable one-on-one setting.

The minute you express an opinion, the conversation changes

The only real way to insure that you hear everything is to be quiet. Remember that the minute you express an opinion, on any subject (even which donuts are best), the conversation changes. Wait until the room has had its say, wait for a lull in the conversation, then offer up your thoughts — still including all the disclaimers, prefaces, and smiles you can muster.

Even then, there’s a risk. You need to be sure you don’t come off like Judge Wapner on The People’s Court: “well I’ve heard your arguments, now here’s my decision.” Save that tone until the very end, when a consensus was not reached, and a decision had to be made. Then it’s OK to be the boss. But until then, remember that the only thing you hear after you speak is what people think you want to hear.

So ask yourself, when I have a team meeting for the purposes of airing opinions, am I the elephant in the room? Does it always seem like things come out the way I said? Did I really hear from all corners of the room? I bet not…