When I was 22 years old, I was hired as the financial controller of a university. During my first week at work, I attended a meeting of the key officers of the institution. I was highly attentive to the issues discussed. Regarding one significant issue, I felt that the group had overlooked an important perspective. After I made my comment, there was an awkward pause, followed by the stares of virtually everyone in the room. Without any acknowledgment of my suggestion, the meeting resumed—as if I had never spoken.
I was stunned! I said nothing more until the meeting was adjourned, after which I asked the last administrator leaving the room if I had said something stupid. His reply was startling: “No,” he said, “your idea was exactly what needed to be said; you just haven’t earned the right to say it yet!”
It had not occurred to me that my input would be dismissed because of my age or short time on the job, but that was clearly the case. Adam Galinsky, a professor at the Columbia Business School has described this phenomenon as the low power double bind: if we don’t speak up, we go unnoticed (and our ideas are unheard); if we do speak up, we are punished.
Mr. Galinsky notes that this bind is a direct function of having low power as a result of age, time on the job, gender, race, etc. This raises the question: Do low power individuals have a valuable contribution to make, or does their lack of power reflect a real inability to contribute?
Later in my career, I accepted an offer to be a product manager for a major Fortune 100 company. My first day on the job was a whirlwind, culminating in an executive meeting. My boss ushered me into a conference room, where sixteen of my fellow product managers surrounded a large conference table. He took his seat at the head of the table, inviting me to occupy the chair at his immediate right.
After introductions, he informed me that this was a regular meeting that I would attend, and that there was one cardinal rule: everyone speaks up! He said that even though it was my first day, he expected to hear from me. I demurred, saying that I thought it best to listen, being a newcomer. He responded firmly, “No, we expect to hear from you today!” I agreed, but frankly, I had no intention of displaying my lack of experience on day one.
The meeting proceeded, during which my boss turned to me several times and asked my opinion. Each time, I responded that I was listening, but that I hadn’t formed opinions worth sharing. Finally, with clear frustration, he said, “Mr. Tyson, you will tell us what you think, NOW!”
I don’t remember what I said, but I do remember what he said to me. He called me a vulgar name! He accused me of having the insight earlier in the meeting, and that failing to share my thoughts at that time had resulted in the waste of thousands of dollars of executive time. I thought I had lost my new job on my first day!
My boss admonished me to “never let this happen again,” and as he walked out the door, he shared what has become a critically important maxim for me ever since: “All of us are smarter than any of us.”
Clearly, as leaders we should entertain the ideas and perspectives of everyone, high power or low. In fact, leaders must be very careful that, as high power individuals, we do not allow our power to drive out the inputs of others. Whether we realize it or not, when this happens, we have succumbed to the notion that “one of us is smarter than everyone else.”
How do we assure that we give a voice to everyone? First, do as my former boss did: ask for it—expect it. Second, request more options, even when one idea seems ideal. Third, hold your own ideas until later in any discussion. When you do share your perspective, present your ideas in the form of a question such as, “Have you thought about…?” or “What might happen if we did…” Strive to build on the suggestions of others, thereby strengthening their resolve to have a voice in future discussions.
All of us are, indeed, smarter than any of us. Don’t fail to empower every person on your team to speak up!
Richard Tyson is the founder, principal owner and president of CEObuilder, which provides forums for consulting and coaching to executives in small businesses.