Managers: Do You Know When to Keep Your Mouth Shut?

Last Updated Sep 30, 2010 5:23 PM EDT

A classic interpersonal challenge that we often see in otherwise-intelligent managers is the desire to "add value" to their team member's great ideas. These leaders like to display their brilliance by continually adding their input -- even at the expense of other people's ownership and commitment.

This happens quite often. For instance, imagine you're an entry-level employee, and Joe is your manager. You come to Joe with an idea that he reluctantly agrees is great. You've been working on this idea for months, and you're really excited about what you've accomplished. Joe likes the idea, but rather than just saying, "Great idea. Congratulations!" he has the need to add, "If you just make these changes, it can be even better."

Unfortunately, you may react with disappointment rather than gratitude. The idea is now becoming Joe's idea -- not yours. This is even more true when Joe's "added value" really has nothing to do with the idea and is just a reflection of his own ego and need to be the boss.

Dave Ulrich, one of the world's top thinkers on leadership, has taught us that people's effectiveness in execution is a function of the quality of their idea multiplied by their commitment to make it work. Even if a leader's comments increase the quality of the idea a little, these comments may not be worth saying if they damage the team member's commitment a lot.

If you're honest with yourself, you can tell that when you start pontificating and trying to add value, you're often not really focused on the quality of the idea at all. You're trying to prove to the world how smart you are.

Here are a few suggestions to help you and your co-workers avoid adding too much value.

Before speaking to you direct reports:

  1. Look into the other person's eyes. Ask yourself: "Will my 'added value' make this person more -- or less -- committed to doing a great job?"
  2. If the answer is "less committed," then ask yourself: "Does the value added by my contribution exceed the loss in commitment from this person?"
  3. If the answer is "no," don't comment.
Before speaking in team meetings:
  1. Ask yourself: "Is this comment going to make our team more effective -- or is it just intended to prove that I'm more clever than my peers?"
  2. If the primary driver of the comment is your own ego, don't say it!
Before "adding value" with family members (especially teenagers):
  1. Ask yourself: "Do these people really care about the sermon that I'm about to deliver, or am I just annoying them?"
  2. Challenge yourself by weighing, "What's more important, my comment or this relationship?"
Adding too much value is a classic challenge for managers at all levels. As a leader, you need to make the transition from technical expert to developer of people. As one of the greatest leaders that we've ever met noted, "For the great individual achiever, it's all about me. For the great leader, it's all about them."

We'd love to hear about your experiences. Have any of your managers ever added too much value? How did it affect you?

  • Kelly and

    Kelly Goldsmith is a recent Ph.D. graduate from the Yale School of Management and a member of the faculty at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. Her specialty is research in consumer decision making.
    Marshall Goldsmith is an executive educator, coach and author. His books include What Got You Here Won't Get You There and Mojo. His specialty is helping successful leaders achieve positive, lasting change in behavior.