Why Some Leaders Commit an Employee Input Mistake
Most leaders get where they are by being competent and confident. It’s often necessary for leaders to project confidence and authority to rally the troops when an important project is behind schedule, during times of organizational change, or when there’s a crisis that threatens the business.
But when it comes to being an effective leader at work, being the brightest, most confident person in the room isn’t always a good thing.
A Leader’s Classic Employee Input Mistake
Take a fictional leader we’ll call Barry. He’s bright and confident, and so are his four team members. Today the five of them are sitting down to review a marketing strategy for a new product the company really needs to succeed. And Barry’s at the head of the table
“OK, everybody,” Barry says. “I’ll present the marketing plan we have so far, and then I want you guys to tear it apart. Don’t be shy. The stakes are too high on this one.”
Barry talks for five minutes in the assured, resonant voice he’s learned to use when presenting to executives. Throughout, he leans forward intently, and occasionally looks his team members in the eye to drive home the seriousness of his message.
“Now it’s your turn,” he concludes. “Tear into it.”
Not a peep from around the table. “C’mon, folks,” Barry says. “Don’t be afraid to speak up. I need your input here.”
Simon, the team’s youngest member, is the first to reply. “Hard to argue with anything you said. You really nailed it.”
Nancy, at the other end of the table, nods enthusiastically. “I have a few minor suggestions,” she says. “But I think your plan’s a winner.”
It wasn’t. Six months later, the new product was floundering, and in hindsight there were obvious flaws in the marketing plan. Now Barry’s got a black mark on his record, and he’s thinking maybe his team isn’t so bright after all.
According to our microlearning experts, the problem isn’t with his team. It’s with Barry.
Was he a bully who intimidated people into silence? Not a bit. Was he too confident and impressive? Bingo. In fact, it was his very confidence that told his team “This guy’s got it all figured out,” and that sucked the oxygen out of the room.
Too Confident a Leader?
Our organizational culture assessment data and behavioral research tells us that there is indeed such a thing as being too competent and confident, at least in certain situations, such as when creative contributions are needed from a range of people during a project kickoff or at the planning stages. That’s when leaders need and want their thinking to be challenged and the flaws in the plan to be called out.
The research was done by academics at the London School of Economics and the University of California, Berkeley. The researchers performed an experiment to assess the behavior of more than 200 students in three different situations that simulated manager-employee interactions. In all three situations, the more confident the manager appeared — as measured by a set of behavioral cues he or she displayed — the less the employee participated in the discussion.
In essence, the researchers concluded, when people are asked to work with a boss whom they perceive as highly competent, their own contributions and creativity are shut down. This has a negative impact on employee engagement and retention.
How You Can Encourage Input as a Leader
As a boss, how can you mitigate this kind of negative effect? For one thing, you can work on those behavioral cues. The research identified three cues in particular that created an impression of high confidence on the leader’s part:
- Tall, upright posture
- Clear, resonant vocal tone
- Strong eye contact
Makes sense, right? Cues like these come naturally to most leaders. If you want more participation in a conversation, you will need make a conscious effort to dial them back.
Hitting the Mute Button as a Leader
Going back to Barry, he could have learned something from the research.
- Physical Environment
For starters, he could have chosen a random seat rather than the one at the head of the table, which is literally the seat of power.
- Prep Work
He might have asked each team member to come with prepared ideas.
- Listen First
He could have asked others to comment first before offering his own ideas.
- Body Language and Tone
When he did speak, he might have used a softer, more conversational tone, and leaned back in his chair rather than forward. Finally, he could have avoided locking eyes with people when he was making a point. To get more input, he could have used eye contact not as a challenge but as an invitation to participate.
If he’d done all this, maybe his team wouldn’t have been silenced by what they saw as his perfect grasp of the situation. They might have offered the opinions at work he wanted and needed. And his product launch might have succeeded instead of failing. That would have made Barry look very bright indeed.
The Bottom Line
If you truly want and need employee input, don’t make the same mistakes as Barry. Dial back the behavioral cues that project your power and competence, invite others to share their ideas before you outline yours, and show genuine interest in the thoughts of your team members.
If you are afraid of making an employee input mistake, download 29 Ways to Build and Maintain Trust as a Leader