Years ago, one of my clients, a VP at GM, was at lunch with his team when he joked, “I wonder what a pink Reatta would look like.” They all had a good laugh, then went about their day. Months later, Dave’s team presented him with an all-pink Reatta—pink exterior, pink leather interior, pink whitewall tires. He was dumbstruck.
Dave’s anecdote perfectly exemplifies the insidiousness of the “power of ten.” Because every conversation takes place in the context of a hierarchy, people often take even a leader’s informal musings as gospel. When the leader says, “I think orange is a good color” or “We could add pictures of my dog to make our website more personal”—voilà!—orange is the new logo color, and dogs are central to the homepage. Part of the problem in these examples is that no one asked a single question, something like, “Would you like to see samples of an orange logo?” or “How prominent should the dogs be?” The other part of the problem is that the leader wasn’t aware of the power of ten.
The ways that leaders communicate their opinions and make decisions are often flawed. Quietly operating in the background of any meeting, review, brainstorming session, or exchange of ideas is the power granted to the leader’s voice. We all have emotional reactions to authority. Great leaders are aware of those reactions and humbly use their authority to empower us to do our best work. Too often, though, that authority is abused—by the egotistical boss, the know-it-all or the overly aggressive or passive-aggressive colleague.
Conversation happens in three directions: down, up, and across. Each is distinct and critical to engagement, collaboration, and good decision-making. This diagram is deceptively simple because it’s far easier to understand than to execute.
We all partake in these conversations without much thought. Whether our goals are to improve team dynamics, to listen, to learn or to deliberate, power issues quietly insert themselves in the background, and they can have a profound impact on each conversational direction. While each conversation is critical to managing power issues, embedded cultural norms of authority and hierarchical pressures make the downward conversation the most challenging one to do well, for leaders and teams alike.
The power of ten illustrates the amplification of a leader’s voice. The power of ten is a down conversation involving the abuse of authority, a voice on high dictating terms. Leaders who consciously or unconsciously use the power of ten operate out of insecurities, believing they must have all the answers and be the smartest person in the room. This behavior is perceived as arrogant and overly authoritarian. It is a conversation killer. The power of ten makes minds spin, leading to unfounded assumptions and unvetted decisions. As a result, up conversations aren’t safe, across conversations become scrambled, competitive silos are erected, and teams get dumbed down.
One example of the negative consequences of the power of ten is the disastrous Challenger accident of 1986. An extensive Presidential Commission determined that faulty leadership and a flawed culture were to blame. Those errors manifested in the failure of the “O-rings,” pressure seals in the solid rocket motors. Multiple communication errors yielded a faulty design. The team responsible for building the rocket lowered standards and failed to inform upper-level managers of the problems. The decision-makers, in turn, ignored safety protocols in order to keep the launch on schedule. NASA’s management was guilty of silo thinking, and information didn’t flow through the organization well.
Unfortunately, this sort of mismanagement is the rule in many corporate cultures. It takes courage and humility for a leader to ignore an attraction and addiction to hierarchical authority. One such leader was General George Marshall, a man renowned for his humility, honesty, and deep respect for his teams and colleagues. Most people don’t remember his name and accomplishments, but we all should. He was a five-star general and a Nobel Prize recipient, and Presidents Truman and Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill all regarded him as the most outstanding soldier of his era.
Marshall’s service, discipline, self-control, and humility earned him that honor and respect. He was loyal to his commanders and their missions, but he was also willing to speak—respectfully—his truth to power. Marshall kept his ego and his emotions in check, and he considered paramount the trust between himself and his followers. That trust allowed all involved to make their best decisions during times of peak-stress while at war.
As explained in this article, the secret to the general’s leadership prowess was, “Having subordinates who trusted him and were willing to take the responsibility of making decisions greatly increased his span of control. But as Marshall’s example shows, empowering subordinates is not a simple undertaking. Empowerment is not done simply to make an employee feel more fulfilled; it is an effective technique that expands the capability of an organization to make and implement decisions. Empowering subordinates is a twofold process: first it implies the ability to identify those who can employ responsibility in an effective manner, and second it implies a need for the leader to relentlessly support the subordinates.”
Here are a few practices to help you avoid the pitfalls of power and improve communication in all three directions.
Information sharing is the easiest type of down conversation. It involves sharing a manageable download of information with many people at an appropriate time and in a suitable context. Team meetings devoted to processing that information are often the place where leaders get tripped up. Collaborative and creative conversations are necessary to solve challenging issues and take on complex projects, but when the leader’s voice has outsized power, team effectiveness declines proportionally.
• If you’re a leader or a manager, begin by accepting the reality of power imbalance. No matter your communication style, others will amplify the authority of your voice and your opinions.
• Become a keen observer of the ways that your communication affects others. Watch out for subtle cues like little eye contact, silence, body language, behind-the-scenes grumbling, or a lack of enthusiasm and energy.
• Check your ego and attitude. Is it possible your words are perceived as arrogant? Can you lead with humility? Are you able to say, “I don’t know”?
• State a problem but hold off on expressing an opinion or immediately offering a solution. Listen to others’ ideas respectfully and with an open mind.
• Encourage opposing views and explore multiple solutions before taking action.
The up conversation is filled with risks and rewards. Unfortunately, the risks often outweigh the rewards. A know-it-all leader oblivious to the power of ten squashes voices rather than encouraging conversation. Speaking up with a boss who doesn’t get it can impinge your career. It’s far easier for employees to voice their opinions and express their ideas with a leader who is aware of power imbalances. Collaborative and creative conversations flourish in a culture of psychological security, where it’s safe to speak up and respectfully disagree.
• Always be sure you’re fully aware and accepting of the power structure of any conversation. Non-acceptance leads to resentment and risky reactions. Accept the reality of the authority at play.
• Check your emotions. Are you angry, disgruntled, frustrated? If yes, acknowledge the emotion and investigate the narrative driving it. What judgments are driving your opinion? What are your desires and concerns?
• Shift your attitude from judgment to curiosity and speak up with honesty and humility.
• Preface your opinions with “I” statements. Rather than saying, “This isn’t the right direction for us” or “This decision is going to land us in a heap of trouble,” try instead to say, “Here’s what I’m thinking,” or “This is your decision, but I have some ideas you might want to consider.”
• Ask sincere questions that acknowledge that the decision isn’t yours. Offer up your thinking, concerns, and desires to help your leader make their best decision.
These conversations occur among colleagues. The best of these conversations involve respect and collaboration. When leaders use their power well, colleagues do their best work. With a clear mission, teams are more than capable of solving challenging issues. But when the power of ten takes hold, alignment, collaboration, and creativity fall to the wayside. One-upmanship, competition, and silos become the norm.
• Acknowledge the power issues at play among individuals.
• How do you and your teammates react to abusive authority? How does it minimize the collective power of the team?
• Have a conversation with your colleagues when you think psychological safety is a problem. Discuss how a team of two or more (safety in numbers) could address the issue. Support one another and practice ways to have the up conversation.
• Suggest to your leader that the team meet to discuss hot topics to process information and generate possible solutions. These meetings provide team members safe space to chew on hot topics. The benefits are twofold: meetings are more productive than report outs, and they stoke innovation and the discovery of new ideas, allowing the team to collectively present solutions to their leader.
Understanding and managing these three conversations can transform a leader and interrupt a team’s dysfunctional, built-in cultural patterns. It’s a journey that requires intentional effort, but leaders and teams that can change their authority-based communication patterns will reap many rewards.