If you think you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re wrong
By Greg Steiner
Whenever I took on a new role, I started out by sharing “ground rules” with my new team. This was a set of guidelines on how we were going to operate. One such rule was that each staff member’s opinions and recommendations were not limited to their specific role or functional area.
Rather, I proposed, we will all act in the best interests of the business as a whole, and we will all have a voice. All thoughts would be welcomed, and everyone would be encouraged to join in the discussion on all issues. (Something like U.S. Senators are supposed to do, but that’s a different conversation, and subject to a lot of political debate!)
You’ll be surprised how often an engineer can make very useful suggestion about a marketing issue, and vice versa. Or how often a business manager can offer beneficial advice to the manager of a completely different, unrelated business.
This open discussion will not happen without encouragement, and it will not always seem productive, but it is well worth doing. Studies have consistently shown that collaborative discussion will result in a better outcome than an individual decision almost every time.
Some of you may recall participating in team training exercises that involve survival situations —e.g., your airplane crash lands in the Arctic and you have a list of items that have been salvaged from the aircraft. You must prioritize these items based on their ability to keep you and your team alive and help you get rescued.
First, each of you ranks the items individually, without discussion. Then the team gets together, discusses the situation, and comes up with a ranking. All of the results are then compared to the ranking done by survival experts. The developers of these exercises claim that 97% of the time, the team ranking is better than any individual.
I have used these exercises for many years, with many different kinds of participants, and found this to be very accurate. The group does better.
But there’s a downside. It takes a lot longer to get a group answer than an individual one. You need a lot of patience. The process requires discussion and debate from everyone. In short, it is effective, but not particularly efficient. But it will pay off.
Sometimes the boss assumes he or she is the smartest person in the room. They think, “I was the one chosen to be boss, so I must be the smartest!” and therefore most qualified for all decisions.
That’s a badly flawed assumption. Everyone on your team should be smart and effective, albeit in different ways and in different subject areas. If they aren’t, why are they on the team?
The key is to tap into these different perspectives and experiences to get fresh ideas. Why limit yourself to your own ideas? Embrace diversity and have the patience to draw it out—you’ll get better results.
This won’t happen by itself. You must encourage and reward it. For example, you may need to tactfully quiet a “Type A” team member who is dominating the conversation with his or her ideas so you can request input from one of your quieter members.
Try something like, “Thank you Mary—really good input, but let me turn to Bob for a second. We haven’t heard your thoughts on this yet, Bob, what do you think?”
You might get some really great ideas that you would have otherwise gone unsaid. This is called “gatekeeping.” It’s a critical role you should learn to do, so you hear from everyone.
Remember, the loudest ideas aren’t always the best. Continually listen carefully to each input, but monitor the room while the debate is going on. Make sure everyone gets some input. In the end, hopefully you’ll reach consensus with a great solution. If not, you’ll have to make the decision, but that’s the subject of another column.
Surround yourself with smart, effective people with different backgrounds and experiences. Let them speak. Listen carefully. You’ll come up with better solutions, almost every time.
• Greg Steiner is a business executive, consultant, speaker, author, board member and instructor with more than 40 years of experience with all sizes of businesses around the globe.