A lot of executives assume that their staff members should act exactly as they do — and enjoy what they enjoy. You can't blame them. Most leaders feel great about themselves. If I were a successful boss, I would be tempted to populate my organization with clones of . . . me. How better to assure that things get done my way?
If only it worked. Leaders are especially prone to this mistake when it comes to their communication style. When I began working with Bob, the CEO of a successful company, I saw this problem play out before my eyes.
The feedback on Bob didn't quite add up. On the one hand, it said he often stifled open discussion. On the other, it said he was always changing his mind. These two characteristics are often mutually exclusive. People who discourage open discussion aren't usually people who are always changing their mind.
Things only made sense after Bob's chairman told me, "You have to understand, Bob is the world champion at debating with others and at arguing with himself. He was a star on one of the best college debating teams in the world."
Time and again, Bob's natural response with any new idea was to go into debate mode and try to shoot holes in it. Let's say Harry, three levels below Bob in the organization, expressed his opinion in a meeting. Bob would leap into the conversation and present the other side of the argument. Harry, considering his status, wasn't likely to be as quick as Bob and almost certainly not as good at debate. Bob just made Harry look very stupid in front of his colleagues. Harry's reaction to the debate was very simple: Quit expressing opinions that Bob may not want to hear. Even better, play it safe and quit expressing opinions at all. Bob thought he was debating; Harry felt like he'd been stepped on.
Bob compounded the problem by debating with himself as well. Someone would say, "Why don't we try this?" and Bob would approve. But a few days later, after he had enough time to debate his decision with himself, he'd change his mind, saying, "Maybe that wasn't such a good idea." In his head, he was open-minded. In his staff's collective brain, he was confusing the hell out of them.
My job was to make Bob see the problem, which I like to call the "golden-rule fallacy." He assumed that his people were just like him and, therefore, liked to be treated the same way he did.
When I told Bob about the feedback he had received, he quickly blurted out, "There must be some misunderstanding here! I love it when we can all take the gloves off and tell each other what we really think."
"That's nice. But they aren't you," I said.
"What's wrong with me expressing an opinion, and someone else expressing an opinion, and we have a healthy debate?" he asked.
True to form, Bob had lured me into a heated debate. I replied, "Well, yes, but you're the CEO — and they aren't. You have advanced degrees and a big IQ — and they may not. You were the star debater at your top university — and they weren't. Their odds of beating you at this game are close to zero. So they opt not to play."
"What about Jim?" Bob countered. "The other day he and I had a heated disagreement. He told me what he thought about one of my plans in no uncertain terms. We had a real head-to-head discussion and ended up with a solution that was better than either one of us started with. Jim told me how much he appreciated my candor and how much fun it was to argue. How do you explain that?"
After laughing at Bob's animated version of his discussion, I replied, "Jim is a younger version of you! He has a great education; he's brilliant and quick. You don't intimidate him. Unfortunately for you, very few people in the world are like Jim, or for that matter, like you. If they were, your style would be perfect."
All of a sudden, the lightbulb went on for Bob. He saw that he was operating under a bogus assumption about how to treat others. So he changed his behavior. He paid close attention to his debating urges and stifled them when they put his staff at a huge disadvantage. He routinely invited people to voice their opinions in meetings and thought once, twice, three times before challenging them. As a CEO, he started making clear decisions and quit causing confusion by publicly debating with himself. After 12 months, Bob's team perceived him as a better boss.
The golden rule doesn't always work in leadership. If you manage your people the way you'd want to be managed, you're forgetting: You're not managing you!
Marshall Goldsmith is corporate America's preeminent executive coach and founding director of the Alliance for Strategic Leadership.
A version of this article appeared in the January 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.