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Management by Moving Away
Over the weekend my wife posed me an interesting question - "How can we tell leaders
to be less intimidating, even when their influence on subordinates is unintentional?" I
quipped – “Is it me, you are talking about?” since both of work in the same firm and I
happen to be the CEO of the firm.
On a serious note, I said a good question, and my first answer – “Just get away from
there”. This is sometimes the best thing a superior can do, by physically not being there
and stifle the thinking and suggestions in a group of otherwise similar-status peers. I am
sure there are many examples each of us can come back with.
What is really happening here?
In many a situation the leader unintentionally imposes his ideas on others, thus
hindering free thinking. This may not be the „Directive Leadership‟ that Social
psychologist Clark McCauley describes in his research on factors influencing
Groupthink. In fact, in many Asian cultures the hierarchical structure is so deeply
ingrained that even the mere presence of the superior, prevents free thinking and free
exchange of ideas. It may be out of respect or out of fear – whatever the cause the
effect is the same - „Death of Free Thinking‟
To prevent such situations, I have seen many leaders consciously avoid being present
in a group workshop or a brain storming session. They visit only towards the end to
listen to the summary. Is that a good idea?
May be, partly. While that solves this problem, it creates another beast. Over time, the
superior becomes ignorant and aloof from the ground realities. The leader loses the
precious knowledge on how the team thinks and works.
What then is the right answer? I do not have clear answers, except to say you may want
to do either of it in moderation.
Story of Cuban Missile Crisis:
In October of 1962 when President John F. Kennedy's advisers were debating about
what to do about the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the Soviet Union was taking steps to
place missiles topped with nuclear weapons just 90 miles from Florida. Kennedy had
gathered experts with diverse opinions and knowledge and encouraged them to express
As Irving Janis mentions in his article Groupthink, at one point, Kennedy divided the
larger group into multiple sub-groups and asked each to develop solutions -- in order to
avoid excessive and premature consensus. Kennedy also reduced the potentially stifling
effects of his status as president by being deliberately absent from these subgroup
Although historians and psychologists continue to debate how important such measures
to avoid groupthink were for producing the decisions that ultimately defused the crisis, I
think that the more general lesson holds: sometimes the best way for a leader to reduce
undue influence is to leave the room or avoid going to meetings where his or her
presence will hinder frank discussion and deep examination of facts.