How managers unintentionally suppress employee input
  • leadership
  • Blog post

How managers unintentionally suppress employee input

Leaders get where they are by being competent and confident. That’s because it’s often necessary for them to project confidence and authority — such as when an important project is behind schedule, the troops need rallying behind a new initiative, or there’s a crisis that threatens the business.

But being the brightest, most confident person in the room isn’t always a good thing.

Take a fictional leader we’ll call Barry. He’s bright and confident, and so are his four team members. Today the five of them are sitting down to review a marketing strategy for a new product the company really needs to succeed. And Barry’s at the head of the table.

“OK, everybody,” Barry says. “I’ll present the marketing plan we have so far, and then I want you guys to tear it apart. Don’t be shy. The stakes are too high on this one.”

Barry talks for five minutes in the assured, resonant voice he’s learned to use for presentations. Throughout, he leans forward intently, and occasionally looks his team members in the eye to drive home the seriousness of his message.

“Now it’s your turn,” he concludes. “Rip into it.”

Anyone? Anyone?

Crickets. Not a peep from around the table. “C’mon, folks,” Barry says. “Don’t be afraid to speak up. I need your help here.”

Simon, the team’s youngest member, is the first to reply. “Hard to argue with anything you said. You really nailed it.”

Nancy, at the other end of the table, nods enthusiastically. “I have a few minor suggestions,” she says. “But I think your plan’s a winner.”

It wasn’t. Six months later, the new product was floundering, and in hindsight there were obvious flaws in the marketing plan. Now Barry’s got a black mark on his record, and he’s thinking maybe his team isn’t so bright after all.

But the problem isn’t with his team. It’s with Barry.

Was he a bully who intimidated people into silence? Not a bit. Was he too confident and impressive? Bingo. In fact, it was his very confidence that told his team “This guy’s got it all figured out,” and sucked the oxygen out of the room.

Key behavioral cues

Behavioral research tells us that there is indeed such a thing as being too competent and confident, at least in certain situations, such as when creative contributions are needed from a range of people as might be the case during a project’s planning stages.

The research we’re talking about was done by academics at the London School of Economics and the University of California, Berkeley. The researchers performed an experiment to assess the behavior of more than 200 students in three different situations that simulated manager-employee interactions. In all three situations, the more confident the manager appeared — as measured by a set of behavioral cues he or she displayed — the less the employee participated in the discussion.

In essence, the researchers concluded, when people are asked to work with a boss whom they perceive as highly competent, their own contributions and creativity are shut down.

So as a boss, what can you do to mitigate this kind of negative effect? For one thing, work on those behavioral cues. The research identified three particular cues that created an impression of high confidence on the leader’s part:

  • Tall, upright posture.
  • Clear, resonant vocal tone and
  • Strong eye contact.

Makes sense, right? Cues like these come naturally to most leaders. So to get more participation in a conversation, you need to make a conscious effort to dial them back.

Hitting the mute button

Going back to Barry, he could have learned something from the LSE/Berkeley research, had he known about it.

For starters, he could have chosen a random seat rather than the one at the head of the table, which is literally the seat of power. He might have asked each team member to come with prepared ideas and let them speak before he said a word. He could have asked others to comment first before offering his own ideas. And when he did speak, he might have used a softer tone, leaned back in his chair rather than forward, and avoided locking eyes with people when he was making a point.

If he’d done all this, maybe his team wouldn’t have been silenced by what they saw as his perfect grasp of the situation. They might have offered the incisive, constructive criticism he wanted and needed. And his product launch might have succeeded instead of failing. That would have made Barry look very bright indeed.

This blog entry is adapted from the Rapid Learning module “Communication: How to Be an Idea Catalyst, not an Idea Killer,” based on the following research study:

Locke, C.C., & Anderson, C. (2015). The downside of looking like a leader: Power, nonverbal confidence, and participative decision-making. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 58, 42-47.

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