Who is the Smartest in the Room

30 May

Does a leader/manager always need to be the smartest person in the room? A lot of well-intentioned leaders fall into the trap of always trying to be the quintessential problem solver, the one who has all the answers thereby doing a big dis-service to themselves and their team members.

It is interesting to observe some of these dynamics in team meetings where some folks always want to have the final word, they interrupt  when someone else is making a point, their body language shows lack of interest/respect when others are speaking and so on. The reason behind such behavior can be attributed to the way people grow in the organization. Specifically:

  • For new leaders/managers, just before reaching the leadership/managerial layer they have mostly grown by virtue of their technical and problem solving skills. Unless guided in the right direction from the senior management, they continue to assume that what has worked in the past would continue to work for them in future as well.
  • For experienced managers, lack of guidance/interest/feedback from their seniors at the early stages of their managerial track journey. They have never been explicitly told and explained the importance of  developing listening skills. It is often true that the seniors are either plain result oriented and do not worry about the long term health of the team or they are afraid to challenge their junior /experienced leaders with big egos.
  • Promoting insecure/over-confident people to leadership/managerial positions which can hurt the organization in the longer run.

The consequences of these behaviors are toxic and often invisible. Some of the clear ones are scuttled growth and problem solving skills of their team members, unwillingness of team members/peers to present alternate views on important topics resulting in sub-optimal solutions. In extreme cases, such folks lose respect of the peer/team members who view them as someone who ‘has to speak and prove his smartness’.

One of the most important and powerful question a leader can ask to any of his team member when approached with a problem is ‘What do you think?’ I am not implying that the leader/manager let go of his responsibility to solve the team’s problems, it is their key responsibility – rather teaching one’s junior how to think and approach a problem rather than giving away easy answers. Of course, there are exceptions to this especially in war like situations where folks need directions and answers.

The challenge in our corporate environments today is that we have a lot of folks who have answers but not many people who can ask the right questions and drive their organizations forward despite not being experts. For example: Jack Ma founder of Alibaba once said on the benefits of his technical ineptitude “At times intelligent people do not need an  expert to lead them. When the team’s all a bunch of scientists, it is best to have a peasant lead the way. His way of thinking is different. It’s easier to win if you have people seeing things from different perspectives.”.

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