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Common Leadership & Management Mistakes

Liz Wiseman quote about good leadership and growth
“I think we need to recognize that we tend to do our best work when we are on the outer edges of what we know, when we are doing something hard and new, and when we are growing through challenge.” -Liz Wiseman*

In 2015, I was returning to university after an extended absence. Weeks into that first semester of remembering how to navigate a full-class load and persistent doubt, Liz Wiseman, leadership researcher and executive advisor, appeared before the university student body as a guest speaker. Her address entitled “The Power of Not Knowing” celebrated our seasons of learning.

Her speech drew heavily on her expert research on management and team synergy. She boils it down to “Multipliers”-leaders who make the people around them smarter- and “Diminishers”-leaders who do the opposite. Six years later, I have completed my undergraduate degree and her comments have even greater influence on me as a fledgling manager.

Here’s a quick glance at a few common diminisher mistakes.

At the end of the article is a strategy to use Wedge Removal, a communication strategy designed to successfully navigate tense relationships and conversations, to amplify your own Multiplier energy.

1. Acquire Resources instead of Maximizing Current Talent

We live in a “more is more” kind of world. Liz Wiseman is leading a quiet revolution in management and her expert research is published in her book Multipliers. It summarizes two years of comprehensive analysis of companies and industries where individual and organizational intelligence provide a competitive advantage.

Wiseman claims that a Multiplier, a manager who elevates the collective intelligence of a group, gets almost twice as much out of their employees as a Diminisher does. This leads me to a major principle of the Multiplier: “Instead of adding more resources, you can more efficiently extract capability out of your people and watch growth skyrocket by multiplying the power of the resources you have.”

“[Diminshers] focus their energy on acquiring resources and slotting them into organizational structures where they are visible and clearly under the command of the leader.”

We’ll start with one of my least favorite managers so we can spend the rest of the article enjoying the great examples of leadership I have worked with. If you’ve graduated from a university you’ve undoubtedly received one of these phone calls, “Would you like to donate money to your alma mater?” I was one of those phone calls and worked for a manager named Joan who led the university’s fundraising call center. It was one of the highest paying campus jobs and Joan employed between 70 and 90 student employees at a time. The center had been given clear goals in annual dollar amounts and each student received regular rankings in various elements of their performance.

Joan cared about her students. That was one of her core values. But where she succeeded at being funny and friendly, she struggled at leading. Employees had been organized into teams led by students with a clear hierarchy where Joan sat atop it. Joan invited ideas only in the context of superficial changes and publicly embarrassed employees who suggested more fundamental changes. Instead of building a motivating intensity, she created a tense environment where her employees felt powerless and isolated. The effect rippled into diminishing returns in employee retention, profitability, and the quality of the workplace culture. And it ultimately ended in a disastrous review of Joan’s performance by her superiors.

2. Putting People Into Boxes- Less Collaboration, More Hostility

There is a unique dynamic among the employees at a nonprofit that trains individuals with disabilities or vocational impediments to be more hire-able. Each case is assigned a social worker, mentors, and a job to do. The management and leadership role looks different between staff and associate versus among the staff members. Communication, performance expectations, job tasks, and so many nuances are quantifiably different in the two contexts. One thing that is universal is the need for conflict resolution.

In 2020, the organization brought together staff from around the globe to launch a new location of the program. There was an even ration of organization veterans, transfers, and outside hires- including myself, a fresh-faced graduate. We grappled with the residual effects of COVID on every element of the launch during the “honeymoon phase” of our new team. Several months in, our caseload was up to 75 individuals, we had opened to the public, and we began to feel the ache of growing pains in our team dynamic.

“Divide and conquer is the modus operandi of [Diminishers],” says Wiseman. “They bring in great talent and carve out a fiefdom for them, but they don’t encourage people to step beyond these walls.” In a common twist on this principle, we as coworkers devolved into putting each other into boxes. Jack is a jerk. Jane is a bootlicker. John is a prima donna. Joe is a doormat. We mentally assigned each other caricature roles when we disappointed each other. We stopped collaborating, grew resentful in our assignments, and woke up less and less excited to come to work.

3. Trying to be Superman- Accidentally Letting Talent Languish

One of my favorite managers was a guy we called Coach. Coach did many things right from pointing out your talents to you and giving you room to increase them to sharing clear, achievable expectations. He regularly challenged us out of our comfort zone. I worked with Coach as a novice manager and saw him do everything he could to support all his employees. After a year and a half, I started to find a rhythm in my role and to tailor it to my unique personality.

One afternoon, Coach mentioned he’d heard I had an idea to improve the staff meeting. Caught off guard, I stammered out one of my smaller ideas about inviting staff members to lead a discussion on a management skill. I watched him uncharacteristically shrink, and he assured me that he was already planning to lead that discussion himself. Staff meeting came and went, and at the end he promised us that next week we would have the training discussion.

I didn’t know how to explain to Coach that I had unmet expectations about my professional development or my belief that the team, not just Coach, could help meet them. Coach was so many impressive things, but one thing he wasn’t was Superman. Limits in our personal resources is a hard truth for all of us to face.

Frustrated employee dealing with bad manager
Employees 'quit and stay' because they are not being given opportunity to grow and creatively problem solve.

The danger of this scenario is how it plays into Wiseman’s proposed “Cycle of Decline.” Players get boxed in and limited, lose confidence and recede, and eventually become” the walking dead who roam the halls of so many organizations. On the outside, these zombies go through the motions, but on the inside they have given up.” They ‘quit and stay,’ says Wiseman. You might be nodding along with this because you’ve seen this or even experienced degrees of it yourself.

The Wedge Remover is a Multiplier

My professional career is still in its infancy, but as I read Wiseman’s book I scribbled “ME” next to both Multiplier and Diminisher qualities. My job, your job, isn’t just to hit those quotas and monthly goals. It’s to lean into the Multiplier qualities inside of us and lean away from our inner Diminisher.

Wedge Removal™ is how we check our inner Diminisher. Anytime we lean towards Diminisher behaviors we create conflict. Each situation above is clear evidence of this. Each time Joan engaged in conversation stoppers and humiliated an employee she cultivated conflict. As coworkers put themselves into restrictive boxes, resentment compounded with conflict to create a hostile work environment. And as Coach failed to facilitate meeting staff needs and growth, employees felt the internal conflict of unmet expectations.

Wedge removal is founded upon the principle that conflict is inevitable. However, it does not have to be harmful if we utilize the communication tools and skills at our disposal. In each of the situations above, while it may have been uncomfortable and even challenging to navigate the conflict created by diminisher behaviors, it was possible.

The Solution

So how do you start this conflict resolution and multiplying process? In a neutral moment, invite your team to join you in establishing norms for communicating needs, feedback, and conflict resolution.

This can look like:

“Do you have some time to chat? I wanna talk about how that disagreement we had may have driven a wedge into our relationship.”

“I feel like the last conflict we had was a little unhealthy and drove some space between us. Can we make some time to talk about that?”

How to deal with conflict at work
Empower everyone with the tools to successfully deal with conflict at work by using a communication plan.

Analyze your own relationships. How is your communication with your coworkers, your parents and siblings, your neighbors, and your bosses? Before you even arrive at conflict, you can decide on a communication plan. Think of it as a fire drill to prepare for a crisis before it happens. However broad or specific your plan of approach may be, a mutual understanding about how to communicate needs, feedback, or conflict is key. It can make the conversation more efficient. It can turn conflict into a positive trigger for change instead of a negative trigger for wedges. Wedge removal and conflict resolution not only increase harmony but can lead to increased productivity and innovation.

If you are already equipped with these skills then you are on your way to leaning away from your inner Diminisher. If that feels like something you can’t tackle alone, we, at 34th Street Consulting, are a resource to simplify that process for you.

*“The Power of Not Knowing,” BYU Speeches

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