Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Delicate Leadership Balance: Creative Tension vs. Crushing People

Fortune recently interviewed Nobel-prize winning chemist Roald Hoffmann. They asked him how his experiences translate at all to leadership in the business world.  Hoffmann talked about his work leading groups of researchers, managing large grants, and maintaining a high level of productivity.  I found this particular excerpt quite interesting:

In science, almost all the papers we publish are written together with several people in research groups. But within that research group, somehow, we have mastered the ethics of collaboration.  There's something about the way that the group leader tells people that an idea made by one of the other people in the group is not good or not right. The criticism is made in a way which allows the person, first of all, to come up with further evidence, but more importantly, doesn't shake them so that they're afraid of making another idea.
 Hoffman has hit the nail on the head when it comes to describing that delicate balance.  We all can recall bosses who crushed someone during a meeting, leaving that person reluctant to express their ideas at future team meetings.   We also know that some teams are simply too polite.  People avoid conflict, and therefore, the teams don't generate and discuss enough creative alternatives.

How does a leader strike that delicate balance?   No magic formula exists.  Leaders need to constantly keep their fingers on the pulse of a team.  They need to read body language, ask for feedback, and meet one-on-one with team members to see if they might have additional input to add.  Leaders also need to conduct periodic "after-action reviews" with their teams - not about the task only, but also about the group process.  How is it going? How can we perform better as a team?  How can our dialogue and collaboration improve?  Leaders will never get the balance perfect... but they can monitor the team aggressively so as to determine when they may have tipped the scales too far in one direction or another. 

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