There is a strong dynamic in every room. When you’re the CEO and you’re in the room, you control that dynamic. The power of the position is consolidated in your hands, and what you say and do will draw people out or make them retreat in anxiety and fear.
In my work with hundreds of CEOs over the past 25 years, I have observed some who intellectually and emotionally muzzle the room, creating an echo chamber, and others who leave the room, creating an idea of meritocracy. I find that there is no arena where “the insidious curtain of respect” — a term coined by American diplomat George Kennan — creates a more dangerous reality distortion field than when the CEO meets with other member of the organization.
The paradox of being a CEO is that your job is to inspire useful ideas, and yet your presence can work against that purpose. So is your desire to indulge in the dark side of charisma to seek admiration. Ironically, you have to overcome the interpersonal responsibility of your role to do this. Generally, you have a lot of influence in the room by regulating the quality of inputs, conversions, and outputs.
Consider the fact that for your people, their personal reputation, career opportunities, and job security are on the line. For you, the vitality and success of the organization is on the line. You understand that silence is expensive, but your people understand that silence is safe. You understand that unvarnished feedback leads to better decision making, but your people understand that unvarnished feedback is a form of self-preservation. You know that fear breaks the feedback loop, but your people know that fear surrounds the feedback loop.
How, then, can you create a high level of psychological safety to foster the unfettered exchange of ideas and unfettered circulation of feedback? Here are 10 practical ways to do just that:
1. Appoint someone else to lead the meeting.
Because you occupy the pinnacle of power, you can change the power dynamic with small changes in the way you orchestrate a meeting. For example, if you assign someone else to manage the meeting instead of managing it yourself, you are obviously dividing the power by leveling yourself up to become a player-coach. This has the added benefit of giving you a better point of view on dual-monitor content and interaction.
2. Don’t sit at the head of the table.
In many physical spaces, seating reflects hierarchy. If you support rituals that reflect the power structure, it promotes guarded behavior and sanitized language. Break those rituals by not sitting at the head of the table. Mix it up — don’t let people get comfortable in designated areas. Show others that you are agnostic to title, position, authority, and the trappings of power by continually configuring physical space, including your personal proximity to the same people.
3. Create warmth and informality.
It would be great if you could personally greet and connect with each person at each meeting, but you can’t. What you can do is create an atmosphere of psychological safety by using your emotional intelligence to express warmth and encourage collaboration. Pay attention to the smallest signals you send, including your movements, facial expressions, and voice characteristics (intensity, tone, volume, rate, and pitch).
4. Model works on vulnerability.
You have a first-mover obligation to model vulnerability practices to give others permission to do the same. This can be disarming, especially when people in the room are making risk/reward calculations about what to say or not say. The quality of the clash of ideas will depend on the tolerance and respect others feel through your behavior. When you show no personal weakness, silence replaces productive tension. So, try the following:
- Obviously challenge yourself
- Ask for help
- Accept what you don’t know
- Point out past mistakes
- Express your uncertainty
5. Encourage questioning before advocacy.
You need lateral, divergent, and non-linear thinking in the room. If you move from asking questions to asserting your position too soon, it gently censors your team and signals the end of the discussion.
There are two forms of inquiry: explanatory and exploratory. Explanatory inquiry uses data to understand current performance based on cause-and-effect relationships. Exploratory inquiry uses data to make hypotheses and predictions about what might be possible. Clarifying questions help improve implementation, while exploratory questions drive innovation.
Whether your focus is implementation or innovation, ask thoughtful questions surrounded by compassionate curiosity. It acts as an equalizer and dilutes the power differential. Make statements like:
- Help me think this through…
- I want to know…
- I enjoy the…
- I can’t wait until we find out how…
- Let’s see if we can solve this problem together.
6. Reward challenges to the status quo.
One CEO I worked with liked to raise an issue and then ask everyone in the room to challenge his point of view. He would say, “Tell me why I’m wrong.” Help me see my blind spots.” Then he stopped and made everyone sit in silence until the first man had enough courage to challenge him. He then rewarded the weakness by saying, “Thank you. I must have missed it. We will explore your perspective.” Knowing that stifling dissent increases the risk of bad judgment, he does it so often that challenging the status quo becomes normal behavior.
7. Push back with humor and enthusiasm.
To increase productive tension in the room, another CEO I worked with made clever use of humor and enthusiasm. For example, he would ask, “Can I wrestle you at that point?” with always a smile and a positive response. Humor and enthusiasm are not only disarming, but also inject excitement into the process and communicate a commitment to rigorous debate. This approach also takes the emotional side out of long discussions. If you disagree without being autocratic, it leaves the discussion open for others to do the same.
8. Buffer strong personality.
Chances are you have introverts, extroverts, and strong personalities in the room. Remember that introverts may prefer to process quietly and nonverbally, while extroverts may prefer verbal, public processing. Contains strong personalities, especially those who lack self-awareness. Do not allow expressions of dominance or overly dogmatic behavior. One CEO did this by saying, “While we’re talking about this issue, don’t take more than your fair share of airtime. I want each of you to be sure of fair participation.” Remember, insecure people tend to elevate themselves by submitting to others. Your job is to create an environment that is shameless and shameless. The higher the arena of power, the deeper the potential be humble when things go south. Finally, take the quiet ones. Ask questions up front and give time to reflect.
9. Listen and pause.
When you listen and pause, you convey respect in an unmistakable way. You tell the person that he deserves to be seen, heard, and understood. There is perhaps no more powerful way to validate another person. If you do this in the presence of other members of your organization, you send a clear message that the individual is important. I know a CEO who does this very well. He listens with intensity and sometimes pauses for a long time. People often try to break the awkward silence, but he gently raises his hand to announce a rule of no pause. These moments of truth can inspire others to think more deeply and to contribute more fully.
10. Give targeted praise and recognition.
Inject precision into your praise and recognition. Instead of saying, “I appreciate that insight,” make it more pointed by explaining why. The “why” explains how valuable the contribution is, which both reinforces the behavior and coaches the individual to do a deeper analysis. You might say instead, “I appreciate that insight because you’ve helped us identify other areas of risk that we’ve overlooked.” One CEO I worked with avoided any hint of gratuitous or uncritical praise because he believed his job was to constantly improve the critical thinking capacity of his people. Don’t hold back or be stingy with praise or recognition. Give it only when there is clarity and genuine encouragement.
. . .
As the CEO, you are the first among equals, but your mere presence dictates the energy. Take the opportunity to intentionally design that dynamic. If you incite fear, seek praise, or allow hierarchy to trump reality, you are abandoning your role. But when you nurture the psychological safety to clear the room, you increase your role and increase your influence and impact. Remember Dickens’ description of Fezziwig’s effect on the bedroom: “He has the power to make us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or heavy; a pleasure or toil. Say that his power is in words and appearances; of things so small and unimportant that it is impossible to add and count them.”