How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter

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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What is an idea Multiplier? How can a good leader make their team smarter?

Idea Multipliers are leaders who encourage their team to give their all by giving employees space, expecting the most from everyone, and encouraging fast learning. In contrast, Idea Diminishers think they have all the ideas, cause anxiety, and judge others.

Keep reading to learn how the best leaders make everyone smarter and the worst ones think they have all the answers.

Idea Multipliers Make Everyone Smarter

Idea Multipliers assume that people have to choose to do their best work and come up with good ideas—performance can’t be forcibly squeezed out of them. They encourage people to willingly give their all by creating a safe yet intense atmosphere using the practices below. (Safety and intensity may seem contradictory, but in fact, it’s possible and necessary to implement both to create an environment in which ideas multiply.) This is how the best leaders make everyone smarter.

Three Practices of Idea Multipliers

Practice #1: Give People Space and Maintain That Space

Idea Multipliers create a comfortable, safe environment by giving people freedom. They:

1. Limit their own participation. Multipliers let their team take charge and don’t interrupt them. In addition to making space for others, this also amplifies Multipliers’ own ideas—when they talk less, the ideas they do put forward are notable and more meaningful.

  • For example, when venture capitalist Ray goes on sales calls, he doesn’t talk much. Instead, he lets his sales team have the floor, even though the clients want to hear from him, he has opinions about what’s being said, and everyone, including his sales team, knows he could probably do the presentation better. Ray only speaks after the presentation is over and only adds to what hasn’t been covered. He never monologues.

When you do need to participate or share an opinion with someone, let them know how strongly you feel about it by categorizing it as soft or hard. Soft opinions are simply things for someone to consider and don’t need to be implemented. Hard opinions you want to see realized.

  • For example, when one president started his job, people would ask him questions, and he wanted to be helpful, so he’d give them a casual answer. Because he was top of the organizational chart, people took his opinions as policy. After he realized this was happening, he made it clear whether what he was saying was a decision or just a musing.

2. Listen 80% of the time. Listening allows Multipliers to figure out what other people know.

  • For example, when Apple sales executive John meets with his direct reports, he spends 80% of the meeting listening or asking questions to prompt more things he can listen to. He wants to find out what his people experience daily.

> Workout #1: Restrict your participation in meetings by using poker chips. Before every meeting, give yourself five poker chips that represent talking time. One chip is 30 seconds of airtime, three are 90 seconds, and one is 120 seconds. This will force you to limit the number of times you speak up in the first place (to five times) and the amount of time you spend speaking on a topic (30-120 seconds). You’ll be forced to speak only when it’s really important.

> Here are some scenarios in which you might want to use your chips:

> * Starting the meeting and laying the framework for a debate

> * Asking a thought-provoking question

> * Suggesting an idea no one else has brought up

> * Getting people back on task

> * Recapping

> Here are some situations in which you might want to stay quiet:

> * Agreeing with someone or offering data to support their point

> * Rephrasing an idea so it’s more like your idea

3. Create a sandbox for experimentation. Multipliers decide in which areas of the business experimentation (and the inevitable mistakes) are allowed, and in which areas results are critical. In the scenarios where experimentation is encouraged, leaders should support the effort, and if it fails, help the experimenter learn from the experiment. Acknowledging that failure is inevitable makes people feel safer.

  • For example, after talking to his team, Nike’s chief of global design John realized that his optimism made his team reluctant to experiment because they were too scared to come up with anything that wasn’t perfect. He and his team listed scenarios and categorized them into two groups, those where experimentation was acceptable, and those where it wasn’t (because failure would hurt stakeholders). People started experimenting in the safe space.

> Workout #2: Make a list of scenarios in which it’s okay to fail and in which it’s not. Share them with the team. Failure is usually acceptable in the following cases:

> * It provides a lot of learning with little cost.

> * It’s possible to recover (resources and time are available).

> * No one is hurt.

> Failure is usually not acceptable when:

> * It comprises company ethics.

> * It hurts the company’s reputation.

> * It destroys someone’s career.

You can also use these boundaries to know when to step in as a leader—stay out of the way of experimentation, but if some crucial outcome is looking chancy, jump in and help.

4. Make all voices heard. In any organization with a hierarchy, the voices at the top tend to get more attention. However, it’s often the voices who are closest to the problems who have the most valuable ideas. Idea Multipliers create an environment in which everyone’s voice has equal weight.

  • For example, ViaSat Inc. has over 4,000 employees and cofounder Mark wants to hear from all of them. If someone spots a problem, regardless of what division they’re in or how junior they are, Mark expects them to bring it up, even if it involves challenging a CEO. Additionally, he doesn’t just make his expectations known; he actively invites junior people to speak up by asking them questions. 

Practice #2: Expect the Best From Everyone

Idea Multipliers create an intensity in the environment by expecting people’s best work. They:

1. Regularly ask people if they’re giving their best. (As a leader, you probably won’t be able to tell—performance is easy to see, but effort isn’t.) Asking this question will encourage people to try harder.

  • For example, when Henry Kissinger’s chief of staff handed in a report, Kissinger asked him if it was his best work. The chief thought about it and decided he could do better. Kissinger asked him again when he handed in the next version. After rewriting the report a third time, when the chief gave it to Kissinger, he told him it was his best.

2. Make it clear the standard is best work, not a particular result. People can’t always control results, so emphasizing outcomes is stressful. Emphasizing best work, however, is controllable and creates positive pressure.

  • For example, when rugby coach Larry Gelwix debriefed with his team about a game they’d won 64 to 20, he asked them if they’d done their best. A couple of the players brought up the fact that they’d won, and they won by a lot, but Gelwix made it clear he was more interested in if everyone had tried as hard as they could than the score.

Practice #3: Encourage Fast Learning

Idea Multipliers further intensify the atmosphere by expecting people to learn from their mistakes. The faster people can fail and learn, the cheaper the mistakes and the faster their ideas improve. They:

1. Publicly address mistakes. Multipliers admit their own mistakes and what they learned from them so that everyone sees that mistakes are acceptable. Additionally, they discuss other people’s mistakes in public too—that way, everyone can learn and there’s no bad blood.

  • For example, pharmacy manager Quynh once made a small mistake with medication and told her team about it. She also runs a daily meeting in which everyone on duty is invited to share their mistakes or near misses. The meeting serves two purposes: Everyone can learn from the mistakes, and everyone can suggest ways to troubleshoot so they don’t happen again.

> Workout #3: Be personal about mistakes—share the biggest ones you’ve ever made. Tell people exactly what you did, what resulted, what the mistake was, what you learned, and how you put that learning into practice in the daily activities they see you doing. You might talk about your mistakes after someone else has made a mistake, or before someone starts something that they’re likely to make a mistake doing.

> To make the conversation about mistakes as public as possible, reserve time in weekly meetings for a discussion of mistakes. Anyone who makes a mistake, including you, should share the story, and everyone present can laugh and learn.

2. Demand that people learn from failures and don’t allow the same mistake twice.

  • For example, when one of Microsoft’s leader Lutz’s direct reports told him that he was dominating a meeting, Lutz asked him exactly how he’d been dominating, what the consequences were, and how to avoid it. He also asked the direct report to tell him if it happened again.

Idea Diminishers

Rather than making everyone smarter as an Idea Multiplier does, Idea Diminishers assume that they’re the only ones with good ideas and as a result, they’re disinterested in other people’s ideas and demand people follow theirs. 

Idea Diminishers also assume they can increase performance by creating stressful, high-pressure environments. In fact, in these environments, people are so scared that they only offer what they think is safe—what they’re confident the Diminisher will agree with. Therefore, many ideas are stifled, no one can improve their performance because they’re scared to do anything innovative, and no one works at full capacity. Then, because the Diminisher can tell people aren’t giving their all (but not why), the Diminisher further increases the pressure by using force or bullying. 

It’s easier to be a Diminisher than Multiplier when it comes to ideas because many organizations have built-in tyranny. For example, organizational charts and approval workflows encourage people at the top to come up with all the ideas and people at the bottom to go along with them without challenging or thinking about them. 

Three Practices of Idea Diminishers

Practice #1: Take Up all the Space

Unlike Idea Multipliers, who aim to get out of people’s way, Idea Diminishers don’t leave room for anyone else. They talk constantly in meetings, interrupt people, have strong opinions, and try to control the situation. Their people keep quiet because they feel unsafe, unheard, and susceptible to criticism.

  • For example, when chief marketing officer Garth is in a meeting, he dominates. When new staff start, everyone warns them that the first thing they have to learn is how to tiptoe around Garth.

Practice #2: Create So Much Anxiety Productivity Suffers

Diminishers are unpredictable—people don’t know what will make them explode—so their team members constantly use up energy trying to avoid upsetting them. This is energy they can no longer direct towards their work and coming up with fresh ideas.

  • For example, props master Timothy scares his team so much that they budget a large portion of their energy to worrying about what he’ll do next. He once threw a walkie-talkie at the director of photography, and no one can do their best work while being prepared to dodge a projectile at any moment.

Practice #3: Judge

Diminishers criticize and judge others to the point where people try not to stand out and only offer safe ideas.

How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter

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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

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