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Collaboration Eats the Smartest Person in the Room for Breakfast

Sue Bingham
Sue Bingham

We're in a new era of work that calls for a new style of leadership. Instead of giving employees orders, you must inspire them.

We are living in a time of unprecedented change. Companies are solving complicated, unpredictable problems that require creative and nonlinear solutions. The traditional company hierarchy won't cut it in this "future of work" era. Instead of ruling from on high and being the "smartest person in the room," managers must learn to be "servant leaders." This asks a manager to tap into her team for valuable insights, ideas and expertise, which inspires widespread collaboration.

You know you're operating under a smartest-person-in-the-room model – what my friend Rod Collins calls "heroic leadership" – if everyone waits for your direction, approval, ideas and inspiration. Your word is law. You dominate discussions, and your employees are possibly even afraid of you. Or they're complacent, parking their brains at the door and waiting around for direction. Needless to say, this environment doesn't encourage innovation or engagement.

Instead, it creates deep silos, promotes stale thinking and scares away high performers.

Several years ago, I coached the president of an ophthalmic lens manufacturer who was, indeed, the smartest person in the room. But he was ready to spark a collaborative environment, so I suggested he write his team's ideas on a flip chart before voicing his own. In the meeting, he nodded after each team member's response, but he charted only the ones he agreed with. Behavior like this might solidify his role as the leader, but it also suppresses an entire group of talented people, silencing their ideas and creativity, and leaving no room for diverse thought.

Servant leaders, on the other hand, work to develop and encourage their employees, unleashing their individual genius. They promote collaboration and trust, valuing input from their teams. This approach sparks innovation throughout an entire organization and positions the company to arrive at complex solutions to complex problems. And research confirms that a manager is most able to produce economic results when she empowers her team to develop ideas and engage in creative pursuits. Here's how to get started:

Explore the potential of a servant leader approach.

Steve Jobs, recognizing the wisdom in cultivating collaboration, once said, "It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do." Plus, as psychologist James Flynn suggests in Does Family Make You Smarter? surrounding yourself with smart people elevates your own intelligence.

I've experienced the power of a servant leader approach firsthand: For years, I've worked among a network of thought leaders who collaborate in creating new paradigms to replace the traditional (and broken) hierarchical organization. During a recent workshop, we applied our collective intelligence to address a particularly complex challenge. The process required us to leave judgment at the door, ask open-ended questions to which people could respond in any way that felt right, and take turns facilitating.

The experience was fascinating: Instead of one person dominating the discussion, we were like jazz musicians co-creating music. Moreover, it was effective. By accessing a higher level of thinking than any of us could have reached alone, we reached a clear path forward.

Collaboration is the key to a servant leader approach. A friend of mine worked with a company that radically changed the way its teams operated. The trick? Altering how everyone worked together. The company introduced a future of work guided by unprecedented self-management. The business aimed to bring employees closer to the customer and, in doing so, created a culture that capitalized on customer satisfaction and rewarded employee innovation and engagement.

If you think your industry or business is immune from all this, think again. These days, market disruptions are shaking things up in nearly every sector. Think Uber and the taxi industry, Netflix and the entertainment world, and Airbnb and hotels. Beyond signaling that the future of work is already upon us, these disruptions are driving massive changes concerning how companies operate. Even if the wave of disruption hasn't hit you yet, your business model is in trouble if you're seeing high turnover, loss of market share and an inability to attract top talent. Chiefly, though, you'll likely have dissatisfied employees.

Consider WD-40, for example. While it may be an old-line business, it has grown because of efforts to increase employee engagement. I've also worked with a major logistics and supply company that saw positive change after the leader moved out of his office and into the general workspace – all so he could be better connected to his employees. Bottom line: Encourage innovation and ideas, regardless of whether they're coming from a boardroom or an intern's desk.

Reflect on your personal leadership style.

It takes work to loosen your stronghold on executive power and become a collaborative leader, but it's mostly about becoming more self-aware. First, perform an honest self-evaluation: Do you think you're the smartest person in the room? Do you act like it? What feedback do you get from others?

Unfortunately, it does take some measure of self-awareness to do your own soul-searching and ask for feedback, but some companies are employing personal assessment instruments that can help. There are a host of these, like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, that tell you your personal style normally and under pressure. I've personally used many of these tools and found them to be relatively in sync with my personal perceptions and feedback from others – good and not so good.

But the most effective approach, in my opinion, is the use of an instrument followed by feedback from managers, peers, direct reports and/or an outside leadership coach. Executive coaching has become a very viable approach, but it requires the senior leaders to see that their direct reports lack awareness and/or sensitivity to how they are perceived.

In my experience, I’ve been able to coach executive leaders by respectfully challenging the thinking behind a decision that is not servant leader-oriented. One of the ways my company has been effective, including with senior leadership, is to address statements that sound elitist or arrogant by asking, "Is that a negative assumption about (the capabilities of) others?"

Promote collaboration through high-energy exercises.

After reflecting and soliciting feedback, act on it. If not, Collins predicts that "the smartest man in the room will be a liability, not an asset." Focus on harnessing the collective genius of the team. If having negative assumptions and low regard for people is not the cause of a lack of empowerment and collaboration, I believe it's because leadership at all levels has not been exposed or trained to the efficiency and simplicity of the many collaboration tools.

Here's an example of a fast-paced, efficient, and modern activity that maximizes divergent thinking and minimizes judgments and arguments:

  • A facilitator asks, "What is the biggest threat to our survival or growth?"

  • Participants have only two minutes to write down their thoughts on individual sticky notes.

  • Afterward, each participant spends two minutes or less presenting and explaining their thoughts. As they describe each idea, they post it on a large white board.

  • The facilitator spends no more than 10 minutes labeling the ideas and organizing them under themes.

  • Participants use a certain number of dot stickers to vote on which ideas should be addressed. The ideas with the most dot stickers are the ones the group should commit to pursuing.

This activity is high-energy, timebound, nonjudgmental and synergistic. If leaders realize how easy it is to use processes like this, they will likely do more of them.

We're in a new era of work that calls for a new style of leadership. Instead of giving employees orders, you must inspire them. You must learn to tap into all the value employees bring, including their innate intelligence, their experience, and their diverse viewpoints. Instead of giving employees meaningless perks like ping-pong tables or fancy coffee machines, give them what they really want: an opportunity to become a valued and active participant in the company’s success.

Image Credit: Rawpixel / Getty Images
Sue Bingham
Sue Bingham Member
Sue Bingham, founder and principal of HPWP Consulting, has been at the forefront of the positive business movement for 30 years. She’s driven to create high-performing workplaces by partnering with courageous leaders who value the contributions of team members.