A Stanford Professor Identifies the Top 3 Problems with Top-Down Leadership

Samsung's disastrous Galaxy 7 Note smartphone recall shows the perils of fostering an authoritarian management culture.

gettyimages-73970377-compressorIn the electronic giant’s case, its wayward behavior was rooted in generations-old South Korean cultural norms that concentrate power in the hands of a small group of executives rarely criticized by the rank and file.

CEOs at American companies, however, also can be guilty of dominating the decision-making process, or hogging the limelight during meetings. And the cost can be just as catastrophic. Consider the medical industry, for example, where poor leader decisions can be a matter of life of death.

“I’m not necessarily saying we should throw hierarchy out the door,” Lindred Greer, an organizational behavior professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, told a gathering of medical practitioners. “There is some utility in having a way to know how to make decisions. But cultures that are overly hierarchical can be dangerous. They inhibit voice.”

“Cultures that are overly hierarchical can be dangerous. They inhibit voice.”

Greer, who’s full presentation can be viewed here, identified 3 problems with top-down management and suggested how they should be fixed.

1.Participation. Previous team research has established what Greer refers to as the 80-20 rule, where leaders typically end up doing 80% of the talking during a meeting. The remaining 20% of chatter is usually used up by other people agreeing with the leader.

“By far, the most important way to equalize participation and get voices heard is building a culture of psychological safety,” Greer said. That means creating a climate where it’s alright to make mistakes, say something that isn’t very smart or canvass crazy ideas.

To this end, she recommends setting up meetings with smaller numbers of people—say five or six max—so participants don’t get drowned out. It’s also important to have data sent around before a meeting so all participants are prepared.

2. Influence. A previous Stanford study found that students asked to pick someone to lead them out of a theoretical desert didn’t always select the smartest person in the room. Instead, they were influenced by factors such as physical appearance, gender and even the deepness of a person’s voice.

“Who speaks most tells us what to do, yet who speaks most doesn’t always know most,” Greer said.

Addressing this problem means offering the stage to multiple meeting participants, depending on their areas of experience, and could perhaps even mean rotating the control of meetings.

Greer also mentioned coming across a CEO in the tech industry who adopted something called the ‘hippo model’. It involved the CEO ‘sinking underwater’ when they wanted people to speak up and only emerging to save the day in the event of a crisis, or when a decision needed to be made.

3. Conflict. There are three different types of dynamics in group discussions, Greer said: groupthink, constructive conflict and destructive conflict. The aim is to get to the middle one: constructive conflict.

Hierarchy can encourage groupthink because everyone just follows the leader, potentially off a cliff. Top-down management cultures can also create destructive conflict, or a me-versus-you mentality, when people realize their boss isn’t the best person to discuss a particular issue. Hierarchy also can engender negative emotions, such as resentment and jealousy.

To foster more constructive arguments, Greer said it’s important to keep emotional displays to a minimum and keep referring back to actual data. Diversity should be embraced, so everyone has something different to offer to a discussion.

Her final piece of advice is for all participants to simply ask why. “Usually, after four or five whys, you get the real answers. Why is an incredibly powerful word in having constructive conflicts.”


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