Leaders! Dialogue — Don’t Just Preside!

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Consider this: There are three kinds of power: position power, knowledge power and presence power. If you’re the CEO or President of your company, or division or group leader in your company, it’s quite possible you have a good bit of all three.

You may not think this is a big deal, but make no mistake, whenever you’re in the room, it is a big deal to everyone else.

In a myriad of small and sometimes imperceptible ways, people “key in” on senior leaders and, based on their behavior, people evaluate just how “safe” it is to say or do something at work. Yet in close to 30 years of consulting we’ve never worked for any senior leaders who, in our opinion, fully realized just how true this is.

For this reason, in our experience, leaders who claim they want to have a sense of “what’s really going on” in their businesses are often their own biggest obstacles. How so? One of the most common ways we’ve witnessed over the years is in the way leaders conduct themselves in group settings. To sum it up, too many leaders, instead of adopting a posture that is conducive to “dialogue” tend to automatically exhibit “presiding” behavior. In short, instead of acting like a participant, too often their default mode is to come across like “the boss.”

It’s tough to blame them, of course, because, all too often, everyone else in the room defers to the leader. This sets up a deferential dynamic that makes it only too easy for a leader to fall into default “presiding” mode. Most leaders, we would say, aren’t even aware that these typical dynamics are at play, let alone practiced in ways to counteract them.

The Self-Aware Leader
But if you’re a self-aware leader who wants to break free of this expectation that you are the be-all and end-all of every meeting or group setting, what do you do? If, as Jack Welch once put it, you really want to “experience the vibrations of the business” from the people who are closer to the action than you are, how do you participate with them in a group setting in a way fosters their valuable straightforwardness and candor?

First and foremost, as a general recommendation, you need to adopt a more passive role, at least initially. This is difficult and unnatural for most leaders who got where they are by being quick, aggressive, “first.” Instead, you need to “hang back” a bit, listen, and not always be the first to weigh in. You need to realize that once you have stated your opinion in a group setting, you have made it much more difficult for anyone who has a different opinion to speak up. And, unless you are infallible, you may never have a chance to hear any of those different – and possibly, better – ideas.

Very often, especially in strategic planning sessions with our clients, where individuals may well be debating nothing less than the future of the company, we advise CEOs to hang back until most everyone else has been heard and the major “arguments” have been framed. Consider how much more precise and nuanced you can be when you weigh in at that point in the discussion. How much more effective will be any input you provide now that you can use the salient points of what you’ve heard to summarize the pros and cons, highlight trade-offs and add whatever you can from your perspective to continue to move the discussion along?

Obviously, in sessions such as these which we’ve been hired to facilitate, a neutral, third-party outsider relieves the formal leader of the responsibility for leading the meeting. This makes it much easier for the leader to engage as a participant like any other. However, the most absent-minded, dominating leader can still stifle a meeting conducted by an outside facilitator. And a truly aware, more dialogue-oriented leader doesn’t necessarily need an outside facilitator to foster a more participative and even-handed exchange. Here again, it’s the behavior of the individual leader that makes all the difference.

Match Leadership Behavior to the Setting
Another rule of thumb: match the behavior to the purpose of the forum. Obviously, if you need to communicate business results or some new policy to your organization, by definition this will be a “top-down” kind of session in which you are more likely to “preside.” On the other hand, if your forum is one where you’re trying to access information or solve a problem that participants know more about than you do, taking steps to create a productive, open dialogue is what’s required.

Here’s a framework we’ve used again and again that can provide a turnkey method for fostering “bottoms-up” dialogue and decision-making in any organization:

1. Identify a problem or issue or challenge or process in your business that needs addressing or improvement, preferably something that requires cross-functional cooperation.
2. Assemble the right group of folks who are closest to that issue and empower them to gather in a group setting to develop recommendations to show you for resolving that problem or making improvements against that issue. You may not even need to participate in this problem-solving process with them.
3. When they’re ready, have them present their improvement program recommendations to you. Here is where you need to exhibit your best dialoguing – not presiding – behavior!
4. Give them your decisions on their recommendations on the spot. Make sure you give explanations for any “No’s”
5. Meet regularly with them during their implementation of the recommendations you approved.
6. Help smooth the way for them during implementation; celebrate their successes; and make heroes of the folks who made improvements happen.

Liberate; Don’t Stifle
Drawing heavily on the GE Work-Out methodology, this framework provides ample opportunity for you as a leader to engage with your organization in a way that liberates vs. stifles the power and the knowledge of those closer to the work than you are. It enables you to lead in a way that is empowering, facilitative and collaborative without requiring you to always behave as “the smartest person in the room.”

Don’t be surprised along the way if you’ve also created a more motivated and engaged workforce that doesn’t always just assume they have to wait for you to tell them what to do!