Why didn’t they tell me to shut up? As I look back on the various senior leadership positions I’ve held, I realize that my teams would have been better served if I’d kept my mouth shut in certain team settings in which I was sharing what I thought were brilliant ideas. In the event such advice would serve you (and if you are a high-achieving leader it probably would), take my advice and shut up!
As much as we’d like to consider that we’re the smartest person in the room (and many times leaders are), when it comes to talking, less is more.
Betsy was the team leader of a group of ten Pacific Northwest executives who ran a mid-sized technology company. Earlier this year I was working with this team during an off-site and immediately noticed that whenever I asked any team member a question, Betsy answered.
This pattern reinforced Betsy’s belief that she was indispensable to the team and company and explained why she worked 100-plus hours per week. It also blocked access to any team genius. By team genius I mean the ideas and innovation that are stimulated when a team is connected, aligned and truly given permission to think and express itself creatively. It’s the “whole is greater than the sum of the parts” sort of thing.
Often, well-meaning but vocal leaders can quell or crush team genius. These leaders forget that leadership is not about having the right answer. It’s about creating environments in which the best answer can arise.
At the next break, I pulled Betsy aside. I gave her my One Minute Challenge. Whenever she felt the impulse to respond and speak, I asked that she pause for at least 60 seconds. It wasn’t long before Betsy had shifted from the person who had all the answers to an observer.
Then the magic started to happen. Other team members spoke up. They took initiative (Betsy had criticized them for not “acting like owners” in the past) and solved problems. Team members felt heard and the team genius revealed itself.
Both Betsy and I were inspired by how innovative some of the ideas were. It was also clear that the new communication dynamic increased the level of commitment to the direction the team decided to take—not a bad set of outcomes in exchange for one person staying silent for 60 seconds.
Betsy didn’t remain silent or disappear, she simply paused before contributing. Her contributions shifted from statements to questions in order to challenge the team’s thinking and consider a broader set of variables.
If you are a particularly verbal person—whether with your team, small group, kids or spouse/partner—the next time you feel the impulse to share your brilliance, correct or advise someone, take the One Minute Challenge. Let go of the outcome for a moment, take a breath, get curious and see what genius arises.
You may be the smartest in the room but when it comes to your most valuable contribution, less may be more.