Multiplier instead of diminisher: how leaders can scale employee intelligence and capabilities

12th Jun 2018
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Leaders must become genius-makers. This best-selling book identifies five practice areas whereby multipliers invest in employees' growth and let them take initiative.

In a world of faster business cycles, increased competition, and pressure on efficiency and innovation with limited resources, it is important for leaders to multiply the intelligence of their employees. It is not enough to be a genius – leaders must become genius-makers, as explained in the book Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter.

Liz Wiseman is a leadership consultant and researcher, and author of The Multiplier Effect and Rookie Smarts. A former executive at Oracle Corporation, she worked over the course of 17 years as VP of Oracle University, and global leader for human resource development. She has a Masters in Organisational Behaviour from Brigham Young University.

The updated 2017 edition of the book spans 360 pages, though the material comes across sometimes as a bit repetitive. The appendix of the book has over 25 pages of useful resources on multiplier experiments, and there is an online companion with an Accidental Diminisher Quiz. The research methodology of the book is also explained, along with a list of multipliers in companies such as Intuit, Intel, Apple, Oracle, Bain, Cisco, SAP and AT&T.

Liz also cites the work of her research mentor CK Prahalad, the late management guru. He shared this Indian proverb with her: “Nothing grows under a banyan tree.” Many leaders protect their people, but do not create new waves of leaders. “How smart you are is defined by how clearly you can see the intellect of others,” according to Prahalad. 

Contrasting leadership styles

Multipliers see, provoke, ask and unleash the capabilities of others, whereas diminishers largely feel their role is to know, direct and tell, Liz begins. Multipliers create engaged workforces and unleash collective intelligence, whereas diminishers intentionally (and sometimes unintentionally) create cultural and behavioural barriers.

Both work their employees hard, but employees under diminishers feel overworked and underutilised, whereas multipliers invest in employees' growth and let them take initiative. The mindset of a diminisher is of elitism and scarcity, and they feel that others cannot figure things out without them - whereas multipliers assume that people are smart and will figure it out, given resources and space.

Multipliers see failure as opportunities for exploration, whereas diminishers resort to a blame game. Multipliers develop talent, whereas diminishers merely use or exploit them for their own career advancement. Multipliers systematically inspire employees to stretch themselves to deliver results that surpass expectations. They have a positive and profitable effect on organisations.

This distinction is usually not binary; managers are positioned at various points along the multiplier-diminisher continuum, and this may change over time. In fact, there are occasions such as crises or high-pressure situations when multipliers need to jump in and take full charge, though such contexts also have their teachable moments.

Multipliers

In organisations headed by multipliers, employees give the very best of their effort, energy, creativity, ideas, enthusiasm and resourcefulness. Multipliers spot the current and unique capability of their employees, and stretch it.

Multipliers and diminishers differ in five key practice areas: talent (talent magnet versus empire builder), work environment (liberator versus tyrant), challenges (challenger versus know-it-all), debates (debate maker versus decision maker), and ownership (investor versus micro-manager). These five practices are summarised in Figure 1 (below). The book also provides tips and worksheets for leaders on how to develop these five practices; effective multipliers excel in at least three of these practices.

1. Multipliers create motivating environments that are intense but safe and comfortable for bold thinking. They promote rigorous debate and participation, which helps generate buy-in. They do not have to be “soft,” “nice guys” or “feel-good managers,” and can instead be tough and extracting. They are hard on issues and data, but empathetic to the human side.

Multipliers also have a sense of humour and even self-deprecating wit, which can reduce stress and increase empathy. They unleash other people’s genius, are accelerators to others’ careers, and their organisations build a reputation as places to grow – thus sparking off a virtuous cycle of growth and wins.

Multipliers see talent networks around them, and not just org charts. They can spot employees’ native genius (ability to do thing effortlessly, freely, naturally, and brilliantly). They share best practices with other organisations as well and showcase their internal achievements to industry so that others also can learn and collaborate.

Multipliers publicly share praise about their employees’ achievements and attitudes. This is done in a sincere manner, and can be rewarding for employees.

2. Multipliers don’t always have to do everything themselves and take credit for it; they learn how to hold back and give others space to think, experiment, fail, learn and grow. In return, they expect the best work from their employees. Employees are often asked, “Is this your best work?” There is pressure at work but not stress. Mutlipliers as liberators are not just good listeners, they are ferocious listeners. They encourage questions even from those employees fresh out of college.

“Liberators give people permission to make mistakes and the obligation to learn from them,” Liz explains. Multipliers admit their own mistakes, this making it easier for others to admit and share lessons from their mistakes.

“The highest quality of thinking cannot emerge without learning. Learning can’t happen without mistakes,” Liz emphasises. Some companies even have regular discussions on “screwup of the week” so that people can have a laugh on a blunder.

“Mistakes are an essential part of progress,” adds Liz. See also my reviews of the related books Adapt, The Up Side of Down, The Wisdom of Failure, Fail Better, Fail Fast, and Failing to Succeed.

3. Multipliers utilise every brain and hear every voice in the organisation, and create a movement instead of a rebellion. They pose provocative but plausible “Mission Impossible” challenges (see my review of the related book, The Moonshot Effect). They stretch the imagination, individual capability, and teamwork capacity of their employees, and question basic assumptions and emerging trends.

They even ask “unsettling questions” about the company’s “assumed invincibility,” in the words of CK Prahalad. Multipliers don’t give employees all the answers they need, but help them begin a process of discovery and see the opportunity themselves.

“Diminishers give answers. Good leaders ask questions. Multipliers ask the really hard questions,” Liz explains. Having set the challenge, multipliers build the collective will and belief to tackle it. The process can be exhausting but is exhilarating, intense but invigorating. Easy wins or low-hanging fruit are celebrated along the way.

4. Multipliers encourage broad debate and diverse input on key decisions (though not all decisions). Employees help co-create and refine the plan, thus becoming co-owners, supporters and advocates of the decision. Employees are encouraged to debate actively, and are also required to switch positions to develop better empathy.

Multipliers frame scenarios and ask probing questions. They take the ultimate decision that may not be based on consensus, but create room for other voices in the journey. “Let people weigh in, and they will give you their buy-in,” Liz advises.

5. Multipliers reduce the organisation’s dependence on them by investing resources and energy in other people’s ability to take ownership. They are avid coaches who look for teachable moments even in the midst of the game. They eventually create a legacy which survives even after they leave the organisation, and they end up becoming “serial multipliers” in subsequent organisations as well.

Examples discussed in the book come from a wide range of sectors. Basketball player Magic Johnson helped everyone in the team be a better player. KR Sridhar, CEO of green-tech startup Bloom Energy, actively promotes collaboration among employees, and he takes his team into confidence via huddles during crucial decisions, such as firing those seen as blockers.

Steven Spielberg sets high standards and demands extraordinary work from his team, but creates an environment for them to do their best. P&G’s Connect and Develop initiative empowers teams to reframe problems and even seek innovative solutions from outside the company. Ela Bhatt of SEWA hands over the operational management of each new institution to new leaders after investing in their training.

Other examples include Alyssa Gallager (superintendent who gave ownership to teachers), Luzt Liob (who encourages ferocious debate at Microsoft Learning), and Larry Gelwiz (rugby coach who encourages leadership among the players). 

Diminishers: intentional and accidental

Diminishers drain intelligence and capability, and are idea killers and energy destroyers. They tend to do all the critical thinking on their own or with limited inner circles, and announce the decisions to others. They can be control freaks who delegate only piecemeal tasks, and end up stunting the growth of their employees.

Employees don’t get adequate recognition under diminishers, and they lose their intellectual confidence. They retreat in the face of harsh criticism, and there is an “anxiety tax” in the organisation.

Interestingly, some leaders may not even know they are diminishers at times. They may also be successful in some roles and in some organisations despite their diminisher impact. “We all have Accidental Diminisher moments,” says Liz.

For example, managers who always come up with too many good ideas may make others dependent on them; rescuers may diminish fire-fighting skills in others; “always on” people may diminish the energy of others; pacesetters may reduce others to mere spectators; rapid movers and responders may make too many changes; overly optimistic leaders may fail to acknowledge that some tasks are really hard; protectors end up leaving people unable to fend for themselves; big picture strategists may rob others of their strategy skills; and perfectionists can leave employees disheartened and discouraged.

“The bad news is that when you have a diminishing impact, you are likely to be completely unaware of it and probably the last to know,” Liz cautions. “Even the best leaders have blind spots,” she adds. Aspiring multipliers need to actively develop their leadership skills and learn when to hold back, she advises.

Employees and colleagues of diminishers should not take their actions personally, be able to “turn down the volume,” develop other circles of influence, be assertive in a creative face-saving manner, tap their managers’ strengths, and even build empathy and bonds of confidence with their leaders. The last resort, of course, is to move on to another organisation.

In sum, multipliers understand that their colleagues and employees are smart and will figure things out, and will get smarter by being challenged and given resources to grow. Multipliers have the attitude of “I trust you to learn how to get it right.” Leaders do not need to be good at everything, but build on their multiplier practices.

Creating a multiplier culture requires promoting the language of multipliers, behaviours, beliefs, stories, rituals and norms. This includes knowledge-sharing sessions, workshops, embedding multiplier principles in activities, spotting multiplier moments, and adding the relevant performance metrics.

Ultimately, the journey is to shift from unconscious to conscious diminisher behaviour, and onwards from conscious to unconscious multiplier. The journey is a build-up, not a burn-out.

“To grow people around you, you need to play in a way that invites others to play big,” Liz sums up.

It would be fitting to end this review with some of the inspiring quotes in the book, compiled below.

The No.1 difference between a Nobel Prize winner and others is not IQ or work ethic, but that they ask bigger questions. – Peter Drucker

I not only use all the brains that I have, but all that I can borrow. – Woodrow Wilson

You want your people to fail early, fast and cheap – and then learn from it. - AG Lafley

It is better to debate a decision without settling it than settling a decision without debating it. – Joseph Joubert

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather word, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea. – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light. – Stanley Kubrick

A leader is someone who helps others lead. – Ela Bhatt

When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be. – Lao Tzu

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