How to play to others’ intelligence

October 23, 2013

Liz Wiseman is an executive leadership adviser and author of the book “Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter.” Wiseman spoke about her management theories with Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up their Center for Government Leadership.

Q. Can you describe this concept of multipliers and explain why they make the best leaders?

(Courtesy of Liz Wiseman)
(Courtesy of Liz Wiseman)

A. To understand multipliers, it first helps to start with diminishers. Diminishers are leaders who are so absorbed in their own intelligence that they stifle other people and deplete an organization of its intelligence and capability. I have found that these diminishing leaders get less than half of peoples’ capabilities. Leaders on the other side of the spectrum are called multipliers. They are smart and capable, but they use their intelligence to bring out intelligence in other people. They build a collective intelligence and capability inside an organization.

Q. How can leaders act more this way?

A. When I interviewed employees, they described working for multipliers as a little exhausting but totally exhilarating, and they described working for diminishers as frustrating and exhausting. People come to work wanting to be exhilarated and to work hard, but when they bounce up against leaders who aren’t seeing their capability, they start to give up. They realize that their boss doesn’t expect much from them, so they clock out and they go home.

Federal managers can act more like multipliers by realizing that the resources needed to solve our most critical problems are already inside the organization. Much like the corporate world, the public sector has an even larger problem, which is: How do we do more with less? The question really is, how do we get more from people who already come to work every day? It’s a problem we can solve.

Q. Are there other ways that federal leaders can fully engage their employees?

A. Good leaders give people space to think and time to work out a problem. Maybe it’s something as specific as sending out questions in advance of a meeting so people have time to think before they’re asked to offer an opinion. Good leaders also define opportunities that cause people to stretch, and they ask people to do hard things. They invite people into a council, where they are expected to come in with a point of view and with data to support that view. Then they lead the debate in a way where people can take a position, but where they can also let go of their positions.

One of my favorite examples is a manager at Microsoft. He tells people to come prepared and that they’re obliged to give their best thinking. He asks them to argue a position. Midway through the debate, he asks his team to switch positions. It’s uncomfortable at first, but sparks fly and eventually the team settles on the right course. It takes away the sense that there are winners and losers, and it allows people to explore issues and to be a part of the winning solution.

Q. How can federal leaders effectively address morale issues given the furloughs, budget cuts and the most recent government shutdown?

A. People need to be acknowledged and appreciated for their abilities. I imagine that people probably feel battered and unappreciated when they have been furloughed and deemed non-essential. One thing I might do specifically if I were a manager at an agency is acknowledge the genius that each person brings to their team and to the work. I also would focus on reengaging the team, perhaps with a challenge that is a size too big for the team and for the individual, and orchestrate an early success to help reestablish the belief that we can do hard things.

Are there government leaders who exemplify the best attributes of a multiplier?

A. You certainly see the logic of the multiplier in the idea of the team of rivals. Barack Obama started that philosophy early in his tenure. He knew he needed a team that would debate and be thoughtful, and I think we’ve seen some nice evidence of that. Another example is Alyssa Gallagher, a superintendent at a school district in California. She was charged with revolutionizing learning for 4,500 students by making greater use of technology. She handpicked the initial force of teachers, told them to be the revolutionaries and gave them the resources. They created a pilot project, engaged many more teachers and soon teachers across the district were reinventing the classroom. She had the wisdom not to be in charge, but instead to put the teachers in charge. This is just another fine example of the multiplier leader.

Read also:

Keeping federal workers engaged

How to develop your presence as a leader

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Jena McGregor · October 23, 2013