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Multiplying Benefits or Diminishing Returns: Which kind of leadership practices are you bringing to work?

  • Posted by: Ellen Kandell

In 2013 I published a series of articles revolving around Mark Gerzon’s book, Leading Through Conflict: How Successful Leaders Transform Differences into Opportunities. Since then, I have been exploring the relationship between leadership and conflict, and how mediation provides us with special insights into the challenges of leadership.

In her book Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter,” Liz Wiseman explores the differences between leaders who successfully cultivate their team members, helping the intelligence in the room to mix and proliferate, and those who dampen a team’s potential. This post is about multipliers and diminishers, and how mediator qualities can help you be the kind of leader you want to be.

The Math of Managing: How to be a Multiplier

In an interview with Tom Fox for the Washington Post’s “The Federal Coach” column,[1] Wiseman described multipliers as leaders who are acutely aware of the intelligence and capability that reside in their existing team, and who tap into those resources to complete tasks and solve challenges. A multiplier engages their team members and encourages them to take creative ownership over their work, to get passionate and invest – whether by stirring up some healthy debate among the team or overtly acknowledging and reinforcing the genius each contributor brings to the table. It’s not that the leader is not him or herself a sharp, capable, intelligent person able to generate their own input. They simply understand that if it’s all about them they will lose the power of collaboration available to them in the team setting, in effect not “leading” at all.

A diminisher confuses this last point, says Wiseman. “Diminishers are leaders who are so absorbed in their own intelligence that they stifle other people and deplete an organization of its intelligence and capability. I have found that these diminishing leaders [benefit from] less than half of people’s [full] capabilities.”[2]

Multiplier as Mediator

According to Wiseman’s description, being a multiplier requires leadership qualities that coalesce elegantly with a mediator’s sensibilities. Acting as both a member and a third party among team members, the job of a multiplier involves managing a lot of group dynamics. Even more specifically, cultivating the cutting edge innovation that can result from creative disagreement and debate is to actively flirt with low-grade conflict in search of its benefits. A mediator’s sensibility will be key for any multiplier to avoid finding themselves face to face with the potentially negative consequences of a conflict that gets out of hand or strays from the intended goal.

As you approach your task of leadership and strive to be a multiplier, thinking of yourself as a mediator provides a new lens on your approach and on problem solving in challenging scenarios. Let’s explore two aspects of the multiplier-as-mediator.

The Participant

At first glance a leader in the workplace might seem very different from a mediator – because they are an integrated part of the workplace team and hierarchy. In many ways, this is true, but mediators and leaders also share some roles in common. Drawing out these similarities can help us to think as a mediator while leading.

Many who write about mediation have acknowledged that while the mediator plays a third party role, coming in from the outside, as soon as they enter the conflict situation they become an active participant in the outcome. It is true that their interests are generally removed from the acute interests of the conflict parties in the room, where the interests of a leader who is part of a team may not be this way. Nonetheless, mediators recognize that to do their job well a strong process of reflection is required, regarding their own sensibilities, strengths, and weaknesses that they bring into the room, and how those qualities impact the mediator’s choices while doing his or her job.

Similarly, a multiplying leader must be aware of their own contribution to the team, and how it interacts with other team members. As Wiseman reminds, it’s not enough to be intelligent and have your own contributions to make or your own goals in mind. A multiplier must be reflective about how their contributions will or will not cultivate the broader collaboration and success of the team. This again, requires a very high degree of reflection – and perhaps even more so for the leader, whose acute interests and personal biases will be more wrapped up in the workplace. Recognizing yourself as a mediator-participant is to be personally responsible for yourself and your behaviors, and how they affect potential outcomes.

The Third Party

On the other side of a mediator’s participant role is the third party role – the role a leader plays for other people on the team. Many of the positive examples that Wiseman gives of leader-multiplier practices involve structuring the way that team members interact with each other, in the interest of common goals. These include strategies such as setting up friendly debates and hosting “team of rivals” dynamics. This must be a very carefully played role. Mediators spend years honing their sense of practice when it comes to being a third party, and a leader should think of their task similarly. You will need to be tuned in to how things are going for all the different people in the room or on the team; you will need to pick up on and sometimes intervene into complex interpersonal dynamics; you will need to help structure and facilitate exchanges in order to strike a balance between the heightened productivity that can result from mild antagonisms, and the negative outcomes that can result when someone feels under threat emotionally.

To expand your toolkit for seeing through a mediator’s lens when approaching your goal of being a multiplier-leader, you might read through some of my other posts on these different aspects of practicing mediation: cultivating trust, inclusive group work, self reflection, leadership and conflict presence, dialogue practices, or my annual reflections on my own mediation practices.

[1] “The Federal Coach: Bringing Out the Best,” The Washington Post. Print. November 11, 2013.

[2] Ibid.

Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.

Author: Ellen Kandell

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