Companies & Industries

When Is It Time to Keep Your Mouth Shut?


When leaders think they're trying improve the quality of other people's good ideas, they're often just trying to prove how smart they are

A classic interpersonal challenge that I often see in brilliant, gifted, successful people is the desire to "add value," especially to other people's great ideas. These leaders are likely to display their brilliance continually by adding their input at the expense of others'.

This occurs quite often. For instance, imagine you are an entry-level employee, and I am your manager. You come to me with an idea that you think is great. You have been working on this idea for months, and are really excited about what you have developed. I like the idea.

Rather than saying, "Great idea!" and letting it go, I must show my brilliance and tell you: "That is a very good idea. Why don't you add X to it, and it will be much better?"

This could well be a case of trying to add "too much value," and here's the problem: The quality of the idea may go up 5% with my suggestions, but your commitment to its execution may go down 50%. It is no longer your idea; as your manager, I have now made it my idea.

My good friend, Dave Ulrich, taught me that effectiveness of execution is a function of the quality of the idea multiplied by the executor's commitment to make it work. Smart people can get so wrapped up in trying to improve quality a little that they may damage commitment a lot.

If we are honest with ourselves, we can see that when we start excessively pontificating and trying to add value, we are often not really focused on the quality of the idea at all. We are just trying to prove to the world how smart we are.

Here are some ideas to help you, your co-workers, and your direct reports avoid adding "too much value."

Before speaking to your direct reports:

Look into the other person's eyes. Ask yourself: "Will my 'added value' make this person more—or less—committed to doing a great job?"

If the answer is "less committed," then ask yourself: "Does the value added by my contribution exceed the loss in commitment by this person?"

If the answer is "no"—don't comment.

Before speaking in team meetings:

Ask yourself: "Is this comment going to make our team more effective—or is it just intended to prove I am more clever than my peers?"

If the answer is that the primary driver of the comment is your own ego, don't say it!

Before "adding value" with family members (especially teenagers):

Ask yourself: "Do these people really care about the 'sermon' that I am about to deliver—or am I just annoying them?"

If your sermon is going to go unheeded anyway, don't deliver it.

"Adding too much value" is a classic challenge for smart, successful people. As leaders we need to make a transition from expert to developer of people. Achievement is about you. Leadership is about them!

Readers: I would appreciate any examples that you know of "adding too much value" or ways to address this common problem. Please send comments!

Marshall Goldsmith is the author of the Wall Street Journal bestseller Succession: Are You Ready? as well as the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller What Got You Here Won't Get You There, a Harold Longman Award winner for Business Book of the Year. Marshall's newest book, MOJO, will be published February 2010 and is available now for preorder. He can be reached at Marshall@MarshallGoldsmith.com, and he provides his articles and videos online at MarshallGoldsmithLibrary.com.

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