What are the five secrets to unleashing the genius in others?
Have you had that boss that you would fear to throw ideas at? A leader that sucked all the energy out of the room, and always seemed to engage in a battle of the wits? You aren’t alone. There are several ways bosses, and even ourselves, can engage in behavior that leaves our team to feel diminished. But there are ways around it.
Liz Wiseman worked at Oracle for 17 years, is one of the Top 10 Leadership Thinkers in the World, and the best-selling author of Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter. I recently interview Liz on the LEADx podcast to discuss the ways leaders can elevate those around them. (The interview below has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)
Kevin Kruse: You say there are basically two kinds of leaders. What are these?
Liz Wiseman: This actually came from an observation I had at Oracle. I got thrown into this company of really, really smart people. There were all these geniuses around me, and as I watched all these brilliant people I noticed that people used their intelligence in different ways. There were leaders who were really, really smart, but other people weren't smart around them. If you've ever seen intelligence used as a weapon, you know what this is like. If you've ever seen a really smart person suck the intelligence out of a room, you've seen one of these leaders that I call ‘Diminishers.’ They tend to be really smart, but people aren't smart around them. When they walk into a room, people get quiet. They hold back. They play it safe. These leaders become like wet blankets on ideas and energy and innovation.
I saw these leaders, and I wondered, “Why is it that they're smart, but other people aren't smart around them?” Then I saw a very different kind of leader who was equally intelligent, but his intelligence was infectious, is how I first noticed it. I'm like, “Wow”, because other people seem to be really smart and at their best around them. When these leaders walk into a room, you can see a visibly different reaction. People tend to sit up, they lean forward, ideas flow, and problems get solved. It's like you can imagine light bulbs going off over people's heads when they're in the room. I came to call those leaders ‘Multipliers.’
When I double clicked on this idea—or this observation that I had—and really studied it and looked at the impact that they had on others, I found a very profound difference in the capability. These ‘Diminishers’ tend to get less than half of people's intelligence or capability; whereas, these ‘Multipliers’ get all of it. I thought, “Wow. We've got a lot of really smart people showing up at work badging into the office every morning, but a lot of that intelligence is going under utilized.” I think it was actually that that put me on. It's a little bit of a self-declared mission to rid the world of bad bosses.
Kruse: I’ve definitely experienced both ‘Diminishers’ and ‘Multipliers’ early on in my career. Some ‘Diminishers’ were even good friends.
Wiseman: I would encourage anyone who's listening to think about maybe someone who was a ‘Diminisher’ to you, and someone who's a ‘Multiplier.’ Your observation carries what I think is a really important insight: this person was a friend. When I started this research, I thought these diminishers were these narcissistic, tyrannical bully types who really shut people down for sport, because I saw a few of them. When I really began to study it and look at what is causing this disengagement and this diminishing across our workplace is that most of these diminishers were actually pretty decent people. Nice people. Someone you might call a friend, but yet they were having a diminishing impact.
I may have started on, like I said, a self-proclaimed mission to rid the world of bad bosses. I haven't been entirely successful at that, in case we haven't noticed.
Kruse: You say multipliers practice five disciplines. What are they?
Wiseman: They're the five things I found that ‘diminishers’ and ‘multipliers’ do very, very differently. The first is how they manage talent. The diminisher tends to acquire resources. I call them ‘Empire Builders.’ Multipliers use people's native genius. They don't use people; they deeply utilize the genius of others.
The second is about the work environment they create. Diminishers tend to be stress creators. They're tyrants. Multipliers create safety, not stress. They tend to have a liberating effect on others.
The third difference, or discipline, is around how they set direction. Diminishers give directives. They set direction based on what they know and what they see, whereas multipliers invite people to stretch. They define opportunities. They play the role of challenger–dragging people into new, interesting, uncomfortable space.
The fourth is the way they make decisions. The diminishers tend to be the decision-maker. They make fast inner-circle decisions to convince people to buy into. The multipliers tend to be a debate-maker. They invite people to weigh in and debate, which generates real and sustainable buy-in.
The last major difference I noticed is how they drive for results. The diminishers tend to be the micromanagers. They jump in and out; they're like bungee bosses. Where the multipliers– they're an investor. They give other people ownership and all the accountability that comes with it. We found that these multiplier leaders are not just engaging, empowering, trusting, supporting kind of leaders like that Bob McCormick moment that I mentioned early on where he's like, “Okay, Liz. I'm gonna help you recover.” They're actually leaders with a hard edge. They challenge. They hold people accountable. They have high expectations, and it's why people give so much to these leaders. It's because they demand so much from the people around them.
Kruse: I'm glad you ended on that point, just to make sure everyone realizes it isn't always about turning over and being soft on an issue.
Wiseman: It's funny. I've heard thousands and thousands of people tell me their stories about these multiplier leaders. What I notice is there's almost just a little bit of a fear in them. It's like, “I would do anything to not disappoint this person.” They fear disappointing, but they didn't fear the person.
What I have learned is that people all around the world, across industries, they come into the office every day desperately wanting to give 100% of their capability, wanting to be asked to do hard things, wanting to be held accountable to those. The reason why I think we want to be held accountable is we also want the spotlight. We want like, “Hey, if I do good work, I want you to tell me I've done good work. And you know what? If I've done anything less than good work, I'm willing to hear that because I want to do great work.”
Kruse: That was one of my biggest weaknesses when I was a young boss. I withheld feedback in an effort to have everyone like me.
Wiseman: When we do that, we are starving people of the vital information they need to perform. It's like if you're a thermostat, and you've got to say, “The room is too cold. I need to tell the device to heat, but I don't really want to tell it it's cold.” It's a ridiculous way we look at it, and I think the ‘multiplier’ way of seeing feedback is it's information that people need to be able to calibrate their performance. That was too hot. We need it colder. The room is too cold; we need it hot.
When I've reframed it to, “I'm not giving feedback. I'm sharing information for people to recalibrate what they're doing,” I find it a lot easier to do it. I'm better at sharing information than making judgments about people. I think a lot of us don't like to make those judgments. It's like, “Who am I to really say?”
Think of the manager as a thermostat.
Kruse: If we know we have some of these diminishing tendencies, how do we address it?
Wiseman: I think the big growth comes when we understand how our very best intentions can go awry. How noble intentions don't always inspire noble action in our followers. I would say figure out the way that you accidentally diminish. I'll spout off a few ways that I tend to accidentally diminish. I'm a bit of an idea guy.
I love the world of ideas. I love a creative, innovative environment, so I'm always tossing out ideas. You can imagine what it does to the people around me as they're chasing these ideas. They're developing a case of apathy because we don't go anywhere with these ideas. Liz is just in love with ideas. I've learned when I'm about to spout an idea, when my ‘idea guy’ comes out, I ask myself a simple question. “Liz, do you want your team to stop what they're doing right now and work on this?” The answer is almost always “No.” I've learned to temper this.
I've got an overabundance of optimism. Some ways, that makes for a very useful senior management trait, but an optimist can be extremely annoying to the people around them. One, because they look like they've lost their tether to reality and they're kind of lost in space. What optimists often overlook is the struggle, the challenge, the part of work that is messy where we're learning and we're grappling and we logged into the wrong Unix account and we've made mistakes. An optimist is like, “Hey. How hard can it be? It's all gonna be great.” I've learned that that actually is diminishing. I've learned to spend more time signaling the struggle like, “Wow. What we're doing is hard. You know what? We're probably gonna make some mistakes here.”
Kruse: It's the flip side to one our strengths, or a couple of our strengths. It's too far the other way, right?
Wiseman: Absolutely. It's someone who leads by example that can very easily become the pacesetter, who creates more spectators than followers. The perfectionist has high standards of excellence, but other people see their work being critiqued. If you want to figure out a few of the ways that you might accidentally diminish, we have this quiz. I'm really sort of embarrassed and proud of this quiz. When I first did this research and wrote the book Multipliers, I had created this rigorous 360 assessment to test the presence of multiplier behavior and diminisher behavior. My publisher said, “Why don't you create a little quiz like a Cosmo quiz?” I said, “I will have nothing to do with a Cosmo quiz.” No. Never. End of conversation.
You know what? I sat down and wrote this little quiz, which has been so helpful to so many people. It's a 10-question quiz, and there are 10 different ways that we can accidentally diminish. It takes like three minutes to take it, and I had to swallow my pride on this because this little quiz has been so helpful to so many, if not, by hundreds of thousands of people. There's a little quiz out there. It's on multipliersbooks.com. It's fast, but it'll help you see how maybe your best intentions could actually be shutting down people rather than engaging and emboldening the people around you.
Kruse: I like to challenge our listeners to get 1% better every day. What’s something you can challenge them to try today?
Wiseman: I'm going to share two. One is just a reflection, and one is something you can do. I think the important is reflection is not only understanding how we can diminish accidentally, but understanding the situations that bring out our inner diminisher. What we found is that there are a lot of people who are like, “Wow, I'm a multiplier most of the time, but then, boy, there are certain situations.” Understand what situations bring out your micromanager, your tyrant. For me, it's probably stress, tight deadlines. Understand what those situations are and have a game plan for what's going to happen when you get into a crisis and how do you get through that and get back to more of a multiplier stance. That's one thing you can do.
Here's a very, very simple but hard thing. Did you see me signaling how hard it is? A simple but hard thing that I think just propels people into multiplier mode. That is moving out of the mode of telling and operating in the mode of asking. It's learning to embrace the question as the key tool in our management toolbox. I think the best leaders tell less, and they ask more. They ask more questions. They ask better questions. They ask more from the people around them, and it's why they get more. It's because they ask.
I've seen managers grow into this mode over their career through that slow, gentle, real learning, but I would encourage you if you're listening right now to take what I call “The Extreme Question Experience” which is a radical shift. The extreme question challenge is could you lead a meeting, a conversation, troubleshoot an issue, and all you do is ask? Meaning, you don't say anything like, “Oh, I agree. That's a good idea.” All you do is just ask question after question after question.
I stumbled into this when I was having trouble with the bedtime routine at home. I'm in the bossy mom mode. “Kids, kids, go to bed. Put that away. Quit playing. Leave her alone. Get your pajamas on. Go brush your teeth. Go to bed. Back to bed. No more stories. Book's done. Say your prayers.” I'm in this tell-tell-tell mode that's not working very well. It was actually a colleague of mine years ago who gave me this challenge as a mom of a six-, four-, and two-year old. It's like, “Well, why don't you try just asking your kids questions?”
Kevin, it changed. This little exercise changed me forever as a parent and as a leader, because suddenly I can't tell them what to do. I've just got to ask the questions and help them figure out what has to get done. It shifted from utter chaos to actually this sort of challenge. Some people will take this challenge to literally try to get their kids to bed. I've had people say, “Wow. It's like changed our family dynamics.” I'd encourage you to take this challenge at work. Maybe lead a staff meeting, a touch-base meeting with someone, and all you do is ask. It's hard, but done once or twice, I find it shifts the way we think about our role: do we pull towards telling, or is our pull toward asking like, “Tell me more?”
That's the simplest shift: from telling to just saying, “Tell me more.” I find that it's probably the most profound shift that a leader can make to not just use the intelligence in their own head, but the true intelligence and capability of their team. I'd give you that challenge.
Kevin Kruse is a New York Times bestselling author, host of the popular LEADx Leadership Podcast, and the CEO/Founder of LEADx.org, which provides free world-class leadership training, professional development and career advice for anyone, anywhere.