Managing Yourself: Bringing Out the Best in Your People

Some leaders drain all the intelligence and capability out of their teams. Because they need to be the smartest, most capable person in the room, these managers often shut down the smarts of others, ultimately stifling the flow of ideas. You know these people, because you’ve worked for and with them.

Consider the senior vice president of marketing who, week after week, suggests new targets and campaigns for your team—forcing you to scurry to keep up with her thinking rather than think for yourself and contribute your own ideas. Or, the vice president of product development who, despite having more than 4,000 top-notch software engineers on staff, admits that he listens to only a couple of people at development meetings, claiming “no one else really has anything much to offer.” These leaders—we call them “diminishers”—underutilize people and leave creativity and talent on the table.

At the other extreme are leaders who, as capable as they are, care less about flaunting their own IQs and more about fostering a culture of intelligence in their organizations. Under the leadership of these “multipliers,” employees don’t just feel smarter, they become smarter. One example is K.R. Sridhar, a renowned scientist and the CEO of Bloom Energy, a green-tech firm. Sridhar recruits elite talent but is careful not to cultivate prima donnas, who might dominate the team’s thinking. When one of his star scientists began relentlessly pushing his own ideas, even handing Sridhar an ultimatum, the CEO chose to place his bets on the team, even though his decision might jeopardize the next product launch. After the loss of this seemingly critical player, the rest of the team rallied, quickly learned new technologies, and successfully hit the release date.

Although working for multipliers like Sridhar feels great, these leaders aren’t feel-good types; they have a hard edge. They expect stellar performance from employees and drive individuals to achieve extraordinary results.

How do we know this? Several years ago, we embarked on a study to answer the following questions: What are the differences between leaders who multiply intelligence among their employees and those who diminish it, and what impact do they have on the organization?

We interviewed senior professionals in industries in which organizational intelligence is a competitive advantage—for instance, IT, health care, and biotech. We asked them to identify two leaders they’d encountered in their careers: one they felt had diminished their intelligence and capabilities and one who had multiplied them. We then studied more than 150 of those selected leaders in more than 35 companies, spanning four continents. We conducted intensive 360-degree analyses of many of these leaders’ behaviors and practices.

We found several critical differences in mind-set between the two types of leaders. The diminisher’s view of intelligence is based on elitism, scarcity, and stasis: That is, you won’t find high levels of brainpower everywhere, in everyone, and if your employees don’t get it now, they never will. The multiplier’s view, meanwhile, is much less cut-and-dried. This type of manager believes smarts are ever evolving and can be cultivated. The critical question for these leaders is not “Is this person smart?” but rather “In what ways is this person smart?” The job, as the multiplier sees it, is to bring the right people together in an environment that unleashes their best thinking—and then stay out of the way.

Getting the most from your team is important all the time; but when the economy is weak, it’s even more critical. You can’t solve talent problems by throwing money at them, swapping in “better” talent at higher salaries. No doubt your employees are stretched tight, but many of your top performers would probably admit to feeling underutilized. Their workloads may be at capacity, but they’re sitting on a stockpile of untapped—or, even worse, thwarted—ideas, skills, and interests.

So while you may think you can’t ask for more from your people in these tumultuous times, it turns out you can. But only if you are willing to shift the responsibility for thinking from yourself to your employees. Our research suggests you can get much more from your team (even twice as much), without adding resources or overhead, if you lead like a multiplier—something you can achieve no matter where you are on the spectrum of leadership styles.