Annoying the gods or adoring narcissists has never paid off. But people don’t readily learn these lessons, and we continue to do both, as the myths teach us.
Take Echo, a mountain nymph who loved her own voice. Echo blatantly disregarded this sage advice, as evidenced by her consorting with Zeus, husband to the powerful and suspicious Hera. When Hera discovered the dalliance, she punished the talkative Echo by taking away her voice, except to foolishly reverberate another’s words.
Echo continued on the path to perdition when she fell in love with the vain Narcissus. But since he could only love himself, he spurned her affection. Poor Echo. She cried until she turned to stone, forever to haunt the earth by repeating the words of others. Narcissus didn’t fare much better and committed suicide. The nymphs of yore conspired to create their own demises because they failed to listen-much as modern-day business leaders do.
Often in a hurry, but seldom immersed in patient discussion, business leaders tend rush to conclusions that they eventually regret-frequently because they created the echo in the room.
You don’t have to be a narcissus to demand results and speed your action orientation. Frequently, well-intended leaders simply want the best solution fast, but in their haste, they inadvertently create a culture of agreement-at least agreement with the leader.
Approval and harmony seeking, these direct reports reiterate, reaffirm, and endorse the leader’s ideas. This serves neither the voice nor the echo.
The voices-the leaders-deny themselves the facts, others’ opinions, and the cautionary tales that their direct reports could provide. The echoes suffer too because they never have the chance to develop their own thinking, take responsibility for their own decisions, or to explore uncharted seas. None of it has to happen. Here’s how you avoid the echo in the room:
- Develop a protocol that the most senior person in the room talks last. This will eliminate “me too” jumping on bandwagons.
- Assign the role of “devil’s advocate” to every important decision. Often people will shy away from playing the role unless the leader clearly states that this needs to happen.
- Encourage dialogue and discourage monologue. Neither the leader nor anyone in the room should take the role of talking head. Rather, promote a sincere search for answers.
- Challenge assumptions and examine underlying causes. Even if you agree with the assumption, ask “why?” until you’re satisfied that you’re at the root of the problem or issue.
- Frame the decision with neutral, concrete language, and don’t “anchor.” If you ask, “How much more than 20% should we increase sales in that market?” you imply that an increase should occur and people should use 20% a starting reference. If you ask, “What should we consider about pricing?” you’ll open the discussion.
- Comment on group process, not just content. Comments like “We’re discussing tactics, and we don’t have a clear goal in mind” or “We’re discussing ideas that deviate from our stated strategy,” will get the group back on track without hijacking the discussion.
The myths seldom have happy endings, but they exist to warn us. If we read and heed the lessons, we can create both happy new stories and endings we won’t regret.