READ ON TO DISCOVER:
- The one trait shared by the worst leaders
- The power of picking a boss—not a job
- What parents and managers have in common
Liz Wiseman is a researcher and advisor who teaches leadership to executives around the world. She is the bestselling author of Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter, The Multiplier Effect: Tapping the Genius Inside Our Schools, and Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work. She recently sat down with Whitney Johnson on the Disrupt Yourself podcast to discuss the many shades of ineffective leadership, and how leaders can bring out the best in their organizations.
This conversation has been edited and condensed. To listen to the full version, click here.
Whitney: So your big idea: multipliers. What is a multiplier?
Liz: The idea came from trying to make sense of my experience at Oracle. I was thrown into management as a child—I was 25 years old when I was put in charge of training, and told to go build a university. I had to learn how to lead really fast, so I watched what the people around me were doing. And I noticed that there were a lot of high-IQ people who had a knack for dumbing down their teams—they were smart, but nobody around them got to be smart. Yet I knew their staff, and they were brilliant people. So I’m like, “How could a leader dumb down such an otherwise smart person?”
I came to call these leaders “diminishers,” because they’re smart, but they diminish the capability and effective intelligence of people around them. Fortunately, I saw other types of leaders that I came to call “multipliers,” and they were multipliers to the intelligence of their team. These leaders were smart, and everyone around them was at their best. They’re leaders around whom hard problems get solved, and progress is made, and people offer their best thinking and boldest ideas. I would literally watch a colleague—say, Brian—present in front of one leader, and then I’d watch him present in front of another. And I’d be like, “Why is Brian a shell of his real capability around this diminishing leader? Brian didn’t change, so somehow it’s a function of leadership.”
One of the dirty secrets of the corporate world is that there are so many people who are busy, but bored—overworked, but underutilized. I think that can be changed with leadership.
Whitney: Early in your career, it sounds like you had one person who was an important multiplier for you.
Liz: I was fortunate to get some real multiplier bosses. As people come out of school thinking about what job they should take, I want to stand on a platform and yell, “Don’t pick a job—pick a boss!” That first person or two that you work for when you’re new to the workforce—that person is going to have a huge impact on your life and your career.
“There are so many people who are busy, but bored—overworked, but underutilized. I think that can be changed with leadership.”
There was one boss in particular, Bob Shaver, who gave me this first management job. He would just ask me to do things, and then he wouldn’t rescue me. I find that the best leaders are comfortable watching other people be uncomfortable. As a leader, you have to be able to tolerate some pain and suffering—not your own, but that of others. Just like as a good parent, you have to let your children struggle on their own without doing it for them.
At one point we were at some Oracle event, and Bob was introducing me to an Oracle client. He was a mature man with gray hair, and looked like a proper executive. Bob said, “This is Liz. She runs Oracle University.” I’m probably 26 years old at the time, and the man does a flinch. He doesn’t even hold back, he just has this startled response, like, “Whoa, you’ve got a kid in charge of this operation?” Bob goes, “Liz isn’t particularly well-qualified for her job,” and then he just starts laughing inside. I could see in his eyes that he was having a lot of fun at my expense. I wasn’t getting any executive air cover, so I had to defend myself. I said, “Hey Bob, who wants a job they’re qualified for? There would be nothing to learn.” In some ways, it became my career ambition to never have a job I was qualified for.
Whitney: In the book, you talk about the math around multipliers and diminishers. Can you walk us through that?
Liz: Here’s what I found that was so startling: These diminishing leaders are really smart themselves, but they underutilize intelligence in others. When I went to quantify this, we asked people, “How much of your knowledge, skills, talent, insight, and capability is your boss getting?” And we found that these diminishing leaders, on average, get less than half of people’s capability—48% is what came out of my first round of research. When we run these numbers in schools, that number goes down to about 40%—that’s how much of the teachers’ intelligence and capability the principals and superintendents are getting. When we do that same study in parts of the world where there’s a lot of hierarchy—like Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East—we find that that diminishing dynamic is even deeper.
By contrast, we find that multiplier leaders get virtually all of people’s capability, and a growth dividend. People say, “They got 100% of my capability, and more.” In my first round of research, there were people who gave me numbers like, “They got 120% of my capability—they got things from me that I didn’t know I had. I grew so much by working for them.”
That’s why I subtitled the book, “How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter.” They take people from giving a fraction of their capability to giving all of their capability. They’re constantly looking to plus a group: “How do I get 10% more?” Getting 10% more across a team will dwarf leaders obsessing over their own intelligence, and trying to get more of it.
Whitney: How can people diagnose that they’re an accidental diminisher, and where they are on that spectrum?
Liz: The accidental diminisher is a person with the best of intentions who is shutting down her team. When I started the research, I could clearly see these tyrannical, narcissistic, bully-like diminishers, and these amazing multiplier leaders. But you know when you get to that twist in a movie when you realize that the good guys are actually the bad guys? I suddenly realized, “Wow, most of the diminishing is coming from the good guys, from really well-intentioned people!” These are the people who sign up for management training, people who read management books, people who write management books.
“Who wants a job they’re qualified for? There would be nothing to learn.”
The “rapid responder” diminisher is the person who is on it. An email doesn’t last long in their inbox—they’re operating from that “see a bear, shoot a bear” model. They think they’re being of service to their team and keeping things moving—they’re trying to create a team that’s agile and responsive. But what happens is that people tend to wait for the rapid responder. When an email is sent to us about our project, but the rapid responder is copied, we’re like, “I should take action on that… But by the time I think it through, run a report, and go consult with someone, this person will have already jumped on it. So I’m just going to let the rapid responder take care of it.”
The “pace-setter” is a driven, achievement-oriented leader, and they tend to lead by example. Have we not been told to do this our whole lives? Whatever it is you’re asking your team to do, you model it and you get out ahead of your team—but people rarely catch up, because when that gap is created, people tend to hold back. When we lead by setting the pace, we are more likely to create spectators than followers. People are watching us do our thing.
Then the “always on” diminishers are these Energizer bunny-types, with tons of energy. We tell ourselves that our energy is contagious, but people often find these people draining. Others don’t want to make eye contact with them—”Oh no, we’re going to get this person going, and how do we get them to stop?”
All of these accidental diminisher tendencies are virtues, but when the leader embodies them to such a great degree, other people don’t need you.
Whitney: Let’s talk about the “rescuer” diminisher in the context of parenting. How do you deal with a parent who’s a bit of a rescuer?
Liz: Rescuers are big-hearted leaders—they don’t like to see people struggle, suffer, make mistakes, or fail. So when they see someone in that state, they’re quick to rescue. Sometimes it’s a heroic gesture like, “Move aside, I’m coming in to do your calculus homework!” But more often than not, it’s just extending a hand of help.
What happens when we help people too early or too often? It might be obvious that it creates dependency, but what’s less obvious is the message that is sent. If someone comes to the rescue, they’re saying, “You can’t do it without me.” Diminishing leaders have a mindset of, “Nobody is going to figure it out without me,” which is what you’re telegraphing every time you rescue: “I don’t think you’re capable of learning how to do this.” We would never want to signal that to our kids, but that’s what we do when we rescue them.
Now most of the time, when people come to you asking for help, they already know what to do. What they’re really looking for is validation, reinforcement, support, or sympathy. So I just tell myself, “Inside their mind is an answer to this problem, and my job is to help them articulate that and take ownership of it.”
Whitney: Let’s talk about how to deal with a diminisher as a boss or a parent. What are some tips that you would offer?
Liz: The first is an antidote to the rescuer, and it comes into play across a number of these: Assert yourself.
“The best strategy for dealing with diminishers is to invite them to the party.”
We’ll go back to parenting—what happens when you try to do something for a three-year-old that she can already do herself? They don’t sit you down and tell you that you’re a bad parent and that they don’t love you. They just say, “I can do it, Daddy.” This is what we need to do with well-meaning diminishers like rescuers. We just need to say, “I’ve got this. I appreciate the help, but I will get this thing across the finish line.” We need to remind people that we’re capable and can figure things out. That will avert a lot of diminishing, particularly of the rescuer variety.
When someone is diminishing us—micromanaging, controlling, dictating, etc.—we tend to judge it as wrong on a moral level, like somebody taking away our autotomy and agency and sense of self-determination. So we judge these people and push them away, but what happens when you try to keep out a micromanaging boss? They micromanage more. What happens when you argue with a know-it-all? They double down.
So I find that the best strategy for dealing with diminishers is to invite them to the party—to let them in, include them, ask for their input, give them your project plans, even become a multiplier for them. Sometimes the best way out of a diminishing situation is to multiply up: ”Hey, why don’t you come to the meeting? I’d like you to open it for the first five minutes, then I’d like to have the team take over, and then why don’t you have the final two minutes to have some closing direction?” Invite them in, but direct them as to how you need their help as your boss.
Whitney: Such great advice.
Is there any other story or idea that you feel like we needed to hear?
Liz: [Leadership guru] John Maxwell said that this idea of multipliers really struck a chord with him. He told me that he got his team together and said, “What’s my number one accidental diminisher tendency?” And they’re like, “John, this is going to take a couple of hours, because you’ve got a bunch of them.”
Then he chose one, and he worked on it. When he was done, he said, “Okay team, what’s the number two thing?” John made it a source of group conversation, and he’s got a wonderful humility and sense of humor. That’s what I would encourage people to do—don’t take this too seriously. The best leaders can laugh at themselves, laugh at their diminishing tendencies, have it be a subject of public discourse. Because when it’s out in the open, feedback isn’t hard. We can just say, “Liz, you are in ‘idea guy mode.’ Do you really want us to stop what we’re doing and work on this? Or are you just amusing yourself?” “Oh, I’m just amusing myself—please forgive me. As you were.”
That was actually the number one thing on my list of 67 characteristics that was the most correlated with diminishers: no sense of humor. They’re not funny. They don’t have this ability to laugh at themselves and go, “Whoops, my bad!” When people can laugh at themselves, it does a lot to help release capability on a team.