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Questions for Liz Wiseman

Interview by: Karen Christensen

Leadership expert Liz Wiseman explains the differences between ‘Multipliers’ and ‘Diminishers’, and how to amplify the intelligence of the people around you.

In your 17-year career at Oracle, you became interested in observing the best leaders around you, and found that they fell into two categories: geniuses and ‘genius makers’.  Please explain the difference.

Oracle has always been known for hiring really smart people.  But when I looked around at my colleagues, I noticed that some of them didn’t behave that way around certain leaders. Somehow, these leaders seemed to shut down the intelligence of the people around them, while other leaders seemed to amplify it.  I came to call the leaders who shut it down ‘Diminishers’, and the ones that amplified it ‘Multipliers’ or genius makers. Not only were these individuals smart and capable themselves, they were able to bring out the smarts and capability in everyone around them.

As I studied the differences between these two kinds of leaders, I found that although they did many things alike, they did a small number of things very differently, particularly the way they managed talent. I still work in Silicon Valley, and so many of the companies here are just obsessed with hiring brilliant people. They comb through the universities and bring in the top graduates they can find.  Diminishers love to hire smart people as much as the next person; but what I have noticed is, they don’t spend much effort thinking about how to utilize that intelligence once it’s in the door, and as a result, talent is often under-utilized. 

Many of us have had a grandmother with a curio cabinet—those cabinets with all the pretty little objects inside.  Everything is behind glass, to be admired but not to be used.  That’s sort of the logic of diminishers: they go about acquiring the best resources possible, essentially ‘for show’.  

Talk a bit about ‘the logic of addition’ vs. ‘the logic of multiplication’.

So many managers—myself included—have grown up with what I call ‘the logic of addition’.  I was hired at Oracle at a time of rapid growth, and the way you solved all your problems was, you hired more resources.  I started running the corporate university at a very young age—I was 24. All my friends thought that it was such a hard job, but it really wasn’t, because all I had to do was analyze how many people we were bringing in the door and what kind of training they needed; then I would go see my boss, the CFO, and ask for more resources.  He might have challenged me over a percentage or two on the budget, but essentially, I was given whatever I said I needed to get the job done.  Of course, then the dot-com bubble burst, and everything changed. Suddenly we all had no choice but to do more with less. 

The logic of a Multiplier—whether in times of boom or bust—is the ‘logic of multiplication’: how can we get more from the resources we already have? My research shows that, amazingly, Multipliers get virtually all of people’s intelligence—95 per cent of it, while diminishers get less than half—48 per cent of people’s capability.  So essentially, the organization is paying $1.00 and getting back 48 cents of value from the people they have hired who work under diminishing leaders. 

The logic of multiplication entails saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got all this latent, unused intelligence inside of our organization; rather than hiring more people, why don’t we start by fully utilizing the people we already have?’  This not only makes sense for economic reasons, but because when you fully utilize talent, you create a vibrant, exhilarating place to work.  

Talk a bit about how Multipliers deal with obstacles and impediments around their people.

Conventional logic is that as managers, we should remove obstacles for people.  That is not what these multipliers do.  If you really think about it, if you remove all the obstacles, you’re actually doing the hardest part of someone’s job.  People don’t stretch themselves and increase their capability by doing rote work; it comes from struggling, from doing hard things.  Imagine a pilot saying he’s going to train a young student pilot, but that he will do all the take-offs and landings.  Oftentimes, this is what we to do as managers.  Well say, ‘Okay, let me get you started’, or ‘Let me troubleshoot this for you’; and we end up—with the very best of intentions—shutting down smart, capable people. 

There’s a whole breed of Diminishers that I call ‘Accidental Diminishers’, and I would actually throw myself into this category. These are well-intended leaders who are having a diminishing impact without even knowing it.  Multipliers do something very different:  they remove obstacles, but not hard problems that need to be solved.   What they remove are the ‘blockers’—things that are impeding people’s progress, and quite often, this means other people.  For instance, a Multiplier will be quick to remove a prima donna from the team—that person who says, ‘It’s my way or the highway’—because these people don’t allow their colleagues to think and to work at their fullest.  The other blocker that Multipliers tend to remove is themselves: they just get themselves out of the way. 

The late-great C.K. Prahalad was a very dear mentor of mine.  We brought him into Oracle in the 1990s and I got to be his sidekick and mentee for years.  I will always remember one of the things he said to me: “Liz, some leaders are like Banyan trees.  They’re lovely and they provide shade, but nothing grows underneath them.”  As managers, we have to be really careful about this.  

Talk a bit about the difference between a tense work environment and an intense one.

This was one of the fascinating things I found: Diminishers tend to create very tense environments—environments that are filled with stress and anxiety.  When we experience anxiety, cognitive psychologists have found that our ability to think and solve complex problems is impacted. Essentially, we get physiologically stupid for a time.  On the other hand, Multipliers tend to create intense environments.  These are environments that require concentration, diligence and energy—they demand people’s best work, people are given space to think. They are obligated to do their very best thinking under these leaders. 

K. R. Sridhar, the founder of Bloom Energy, was one of the multipliers I studied, and I was interested to hear his team say that he creates an environment with tons of pressure, but almost no stress.  I didn’t really know the difference between the two, so I asked him about it and he told me to think about the story of William Tell. Tell was this rebel Swiss archer who falls out of favour with the Austrian overlord and he and his son, who is traveling with him, are sentenced to death; but the overlord decides to inflict a more cruel punishment:  if he can shoot the apple off his son’s head, they will be let free.  If not, they will both be executed.  In this scenario, K. R .  said, William Tell feels pressure, but his son feels stress. 

I’ve always remembered that. Of course, the fundamental difference between the two positions is that the son has no control, and I think it’s very insightful for what managers need to do with the control that comes with their position: if they hold onto it tightly, the people around them will feel tense.  But if they take that control and share it, everyone feels pressure to do their best work—to metaphorically ‘take the shot of their life’.

Discuss the role of debate creation in all of this.

I have found that Diminishers tend to practice faux inclusion by involving people in small decisions, like ‘Gee, how should we reconfigure our work space?’  They make all the important decisions themselves, and then run around trying to get buy-in for them.  Multipliers do things very differently.  For small decisions, they’re probably a bit sloppy, but on decisions of any consequence, they truly bring people in and let them debate.  And the research shows that when people get a chance to weigh in on a meaty issue, buy-in is taken care of—it’s a by-product of the process.  

One of the best debate makers I studied was Lutz Ziob, the general manager of Microsoft Learning.  He’s brilliant at it.   What he does is, he frames an issue for people by crisping it up into a really clear and intriguing question; then he gives people time to form an opinion and gather evidence, and he requires them to come into meetings with a pre-established position.  This is a far better approach to asking people to ‘come in with an open mind’.  When people come in with a neutral position, they’re often swayed by the loudest voice or by the first argument they hear; in the end they are rarely committed to the resolution. 

What Lutz does is so brilliant: he asks each person to argue their opening position.   Then, midway through the session—as things start to settle one way or the other—he switches things up by asking a person who has already said they are for that solution to argue against it.   This is uncomfortable, of course, but it really deepens people’s thinking.  It exposes vulnerabilities and holes in the argument.  In the end, it’s not a question of, who won the debate? Nobody won: the team just became unified behind a position.

What can readers do if they are stuck working under a ‘Diminisher’—or worse yet, if they suspect they might be one?

If you suspect you might be a Diminisher, you are very likely an Accidental Diminisher.  You might be over-ideating and not leaving people enough ‘space’, and the simplest way to find out is to ask them.  We offer a rigorous 360-degree assessment on our website [], but you can also use a more casual approach like our ten-question quiz (see sidebar).   

If you are stuck working for a Diminisher—as so many professionals and managers are—you might start with some feedback, to help your boss see what is happening. You don’t have to sit her down and say, ‘You are being a Diminisher, and I feel suffocated working for you’.  But you might say, ‘You know what? ‘I’ve got this. You don’t need to rescue me here’.  Remind them that you appreciate their input, but you are going to cross the finish line on your own. 

If you’re truly stuck working an abject Diminisher, it’s tricky because your intuition will tell you to keep them at bay and stay away from them as much as possible. But what happens is, you end up being a Diminisher to this person by suppressing them.  A quick question to test whether you’ve fallen prey to this is, How well do you understand your boss’s ‘native genius’—the thing(s) that he or she does brilliantly, easily and freely?

A far better strategy is to be a Multiplier to your diminishing boss. As we have seen, Multipliers help pull out people’s intelligence and capability.  So let them in, ask for their opinion, invite them to meetings and recognize their efforts. The best leaders find the native genius in everyone in the organization, and put it to work.

Liz Wiseman is the co-author of Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter (HarperBusiness, 2010) and President of the Wiseman Group, a leadership research and development firm headquartered in Silicon Valley, California. Her clients include Apple, Dubai Bank, Genentech, Nike, PayPal and Twitter. Her latest book is The Multiplier Effect: Tapping the Genius Inside Our Schools (Corwin, 2013). Listed on the Thinkers50 ranking of the world’s most influential management thinkers, she worked over the course of 17 years as the vice president of Oracle University and as Oracle’s global leader for Human Resource Development.

This article originally appeared in ‘Priceless’ (Spring 2014).

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