This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Multipliers" by Liz Wiseman. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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Do you work with a leader who makes you feel drained, underutilized, and frustrated? Does your coworker or boss make you feel anxious, judged, and drained of energy?
If you answered yes to any of those questions, then you’re working with a Diminisher. The good news is that there are methods for surviving Diminishers and in some cases, you can even transform your Diminisher coworker into a Multiplier.
Keep reading to learn how to deal with Diminishers.
Most of us aren’t the only leaders in our organizations and have to work with others who may be Diminishers. When you work for or with a Diminisher, you might feel underused, drained, and lifeless. This can spill into other areas of your life and lead to health problems such as low energy or depression.
The good news is, there are several strategies for surviving (or even transforming) Diminishers. First, we’ll look at what doesn’t work. Then, we’ll look at what does.
Ineffective Ways to Handle Diminishers
When faced with Diminishers, none of us are at our best—Diminishers make us feel anxious and stressed. They trigger our emotional brains, which overpower our rational ones, and we act without thinking. As a result, the least effective ways to deal with Diminishers—confrontation, avoidance, and compliance—are also the options most people turn to. These reactions create a cycle of diminishment:
- The Diminisher exhibits some diminishing behavior, such as micromanaging.
- We feel unfairly judged or maligned.
- We avoid or criticize the Diminisher. Or, we stop listening and disengage in the hopes of ending the diminishment.
- Our behavior makes the Diminish feel nervous or threatened, so they diminish even more strongly.
- For example, micromanagers, when they feel pushed out of the loop, interfere even more.
- Our reaction to this increased diminishment is to continue avoiding, criticizing, or ignoring the Diminisher (which results in us acting like Diminishers ourselves). This provokes even more diminishing behavior in the boss.
The author’s research found that this cycle usually lasts for 22 months, or 85% of the time someone worked under a Diminisher. Ultimately, it’s impossible to get a Diminisher to change by diminishing them.
Effective Ways to Handle Diminishers
There are three types of strategies for effectively handling Diminishers. Attempt them in the following order:
Step #1: Survival Strategies
These strategies will increase your resistance to diminishing behavior and win you some space to consider further strategies.
1. Tune out the Diminisher occasionally. When a Diminisher is criticizing you or nitpicking, don’t take it personally or let it affect your self-worth. The Diminisher may just be taking out some of their stress on you (for example, she might be feeling pressure from her boss). Even if she is being vicious on purpose, you don’t have to sink to her assessment of you—you can continue to hold yourself to high standards and believe you’re smart.
- For example, education leader Glenn didn’t want to get upset after arguing with a Diminisher, so while he didn’t like the Diminisher’s behavior, he chose not to let it bother him. He acknowledged that the Diminisher had been contentious for a reason, but he wasn’t necessarily that reason.
2. Build other relationships. Connect with people at your workplace, whether they’re clients, colleagues, or different managers. This support group can help you objectively assess your ideas and performance, and they can remind you that you’re smart. They can also help you advance your career and navigate your relationship with the Diminisher. Make sure, however, that this support group isn’t just about venting—discuss positive ways you can increase your success, not just the negatives of working with the Diminisher.
- For example, when faced with a Diminisher, a petty officer in the navy follows the Diminisher’s order but also speaks with a different leader who can offer a different point of view.
3. Retreat and revise. When you get into a confrontation with a Diminisher, back off and create some distance. The Diminisher will appreciate this too—it gives her a graceful way out. Once you’ve had some time to cool off, think of ways to move forward, not ways to win, and then meet with the Diminisher again.
- For example, when one Apple executive pitched ideas to Steve Jobs, if Jobs got agitated, she’d stop arguing, listen to him, and then ask for time to think through what they’d talked about. She took a few days to tweak her plan to include his best ideas, and when they met again, things moved forward because he appreciated being listened to.
4. Be reassuring. Most Diminishers micromanage because they’re worried that the project or task won’t get finished if they don’t step in. Reassure your boss that you’re on top of things by sending them signals tailored to their personality.
- For example, Heidi scores high on the judging style of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. This means that she’s methodical and will have more confidence in someone who preemptively gives her updates when a project meets certain milestones, rather than simply reporting that things are “going well” when asked.
5. Stand up for your smarts. If a Diminisher is being overly helpful, respectfully and humbly remind them that you can do the task on your own. You can use humor, which works well on Accidental Diminishers—for example, when the author slipped into micromanaging, one of her team members pretended to wear a choke-chain and gasp for air to let her know she was stifling him. Or, try if-then statements, such as: “If you let me do this, then I’ll make sure it turns out well.” Then, do your best work so the reminder sticks.
- For example, when Megan was organizing a volunteer event, she fell behind because she got busy at work. The volunteer leader started checking in on her, which Megan found frustrating and discouraging. Megan asked the leader to imagine Megan was perfectly capable and to leave her alone for three days. Megan got the job done.
6. Ask for information you’re missing. You usually need two types of information to do your job well: 1) what the goal is and why it matters, and 2) feedback on your performance. If you don’t know what you’re aiming for, all you can do is follow instructions, not leverage your intelligence. If you don’t know how you’re performing, you can’t improve. However, the information most Diminishers provide is how to do a task (often more than once if things go off track), so you may need to flat-out ask to get the information you need.
- For example, when medical expert Kevin’s leader told him which technique to use to do something, Kevin asked him what he wanted to achieve. Kevin listened and then asked if he could get the same result in a different way (the leader’s way wasn’t going to work). The leader agreed that as long the result came through, Kevin could use his method.
7. Assess the situation objectively. It’s possible your boss is an Accidental Diminisher and has good intentions you’re not giving them credit for. It’s also possible that, if you find yourself constantly meeting Diminishers, you might be a Diminisher and you’re bringing out these traits in others.
8. Quit and find a better boss. If the diminishment becomes too much, leave the situation and find a better one. Evaluate a possible new leader’s Multiplier abilities by:
- Assessing how likely they are to be a Multiplier. The three most common Multiplier traits and behaviors are asking questions, intellectual curiosity, and focus on clients. Other notables to look for include talking a little and listening a lot, viewing things from different points of view, and self-deprecation.
- Assessing how likely they are to be a Diminisher. Diminishers talk a lot and listen a little, have high-self opinions, ask weak questions, and have strong ideas.
- Assessing how unlikely they are to be a Diminisher. The traits least common in Diminishers are sense of humor, trying to understand, empowerment, and accepting different points of view. If someone has these traits, they’re likely not a Diminisher.
- Asking questions about their assumptions and mindset:
- Ask how they’ve improved as a leader. If they’re not self-aware and open to criticism, they might be Diminishers.
- Ask them to describe their team. If they quickly bring the conversation back to themselves, they might be Diminishers.
- Ask for their opinion on leadership. If they see themselves as the smartest person, they might be Diminishers.
- Ask who on their team is intelligent. If they only mention certain people or one type of intelligence, they might be Diminishers.
- Ask about project ownership. If they list tasks rather than name projects, they might be a Diminisher, because delegating small to-dos and micromanaging are Diminisher behaviors.
- Talking to current employees or reading reviews on sites like Glassdoor.com.
- Working with the leader short-term as a freelancer, or sitting in on a meeting.
If the leader isn’t receptive to any of the above, then they’re likely not someone you wanted to work for anyway.
Step #2: Multiplying Strategies
The next set of strategies help you multiply upwards—you can be a Multiplier even if your boss isn’t. While managers tend to be best at multiplying their direct reports, it’s equally possible to multiply anyone you work with. This is because Diminishers are most concerned with their own smarts and need their intelligence validated. As Multipliers, by nature, validate people’s genius by treating them like they’re smart, acting like a Multiplier towards your boss will make them feel comfortable and make them more likely to give you more trust, which might make them reduce their diminishing behavior.
Additionally, some of these strategies will help you carve out opportunities for yourself if your Diminisher boss doesn’t set them up for you.
To multiply your boss:
1. Harness their knowledge and skills. Without giving away ownership of projects, ask your boss to weigh or jump in at points when their skills will improve the results.
- For example, Apple executive Ron asked Steve Jobs for his insights at certain stages of product development. Ron asked how they could make the product better, and Steve responded with good ideas. This approach kept the product’s ownership with Ron but also didn’t exclude Steve.
2. Show or tell them how to best use you. If your boss hasn’t discovered how to get 100% out of you yet, don’t wait for her to figure it out—visibly demonstrate your skills so she can see where you’re capable, or just flat-out tell her what your native genius is and how it could be used at your workplace. Continue to do all aspects of your job though—finding your native genius doesn’t excuse you from daily tasks.
- For example, if you’re good at solving problems, you might offer to help get an over-budget project back on track.
3. Look for the learning opportunity. Even Diminishers can teach you something. Listen attentively to their feedback and criticism and consider what seems legitimate. Visibly demonstrate that you’re listening, and ask questions to understand where they’re coming from.
- For example, education administrator Glenn asks if he can take notes during conversations with Diminishers, explaining that he does this so he can think about the conversation later.
4. Share mistakes. When you try to hide mistakes and Diminishers find out about them, they lose confidence in you (both in your ability and judgment) and assume something similar will happen in the future. Instead, air your mistakes and what you’ve learned from them. This will encourage others, maybe even Diminishers, to share their mistakes too.
5. Ask for a challenge. We learn best when we take on projects that are just a little bit beyond our current capabilities. If your boss isn’t giving you enough to do, or if she gives you a lot but it’s all the same, volunteer to do something hard. Be clear that you’re not looking for a promotion (this makes managers defensive), you’re looking for a challenge. Start with small challenges and then work up to larger ones.
6. Invite your boss into the loop. When you try to keep your boss on the outside—for example, by not inviting her to meetings, not asking for her opinion, and not sharing data—she becomes disconnected from reality, dependent, and pushes even harder to be included. Instead, invite her to meetings and keep her updated. This will prove to her that you’re not trying to hide anything and will also give you more control—if you invite her to do something specific, you can control the parameters of her involvement, thus preventing her from taking over.
Breaking the Cycle of Diminishment
By multiplying your boss, you can break the cycle of diminishment and create a new cycle:
- The Diminisher exhibits some diminishing behavior, such as micromanaging.
- We react with curiosity. We consider why the Diminisher is reacting the way that they are and try to empathize. We consider that we might not be what provoked the diminishment. The Diminisher might be responding to pressure from above, or the lingering effects of previous Diminishers they’ve been subject to.
- We invite the Diminisher to weigh in on our work and listen to her notes.
- Our behavior makes the Diminisher feel more comfortable and respected, so she gives us more space and trust.
- The Diminisher reduces diminishing behavior.
Step #3: Transformation Strategies
The final set of strategies involves helping Diminishers transform into Multipliers. However, your Diminishers must want to become Multipliers—you can’t force anyone to change, only encourage them. You can encourage by showing them the negative consequences of their diminishing tendencies and a better way to lead.
Here are the strategies for transforming a Diminisher:
1. Give your boss the benefit of the doubt. Assume that your boss had good intentions and is only diminishing by accident. Then, when you talk to her about her actions, the conversation isn’t about how diminishing she is; it’s about what she can change to get what she wants.
- For example, if your boss is a First Responder, acknowledge that she’s responding quickly because she wants the organization to be agile before explaining that her quick responses are slowing others down.
2. Only bring up one thing at a time. If you unload all your notes on your boss at once, she’ll feel overwhelmed and attacked, and probably diminish you by shutting down your ideas. Instead, bring things up one by one, and start with smaller issues. The Diminisher is much more likely to respond positively.
3. Reward baby steps. Recognize and praise the Diminisher for even the smallest changes.
4. Lead by example. Work on your own diminishing actions and transform them into multiplying actions instead. Just because your boss is above you in the organizational chart doesn’t mean that you can’t be a leader, too.
If you want to give Multipliers to a Diminisher, do so in a way that doesn’t come across as accusing them of being a Diminisher. You can do this by:
- Talking about how the book helped you, whether that’s in identifying your accidental diminishing or the results the Multiplier approach produced
- Selling it as a way to get twice as more out of people, which almost every manager would be interested in
- Sharing an idea or workout instead of handing them the book itself
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- Why multipliers make better leaders than diminishers
- How multipliers increase the total intelligence and capability of a team
- The 3 steps to follow if you want to reduce your own diminishing qualities