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#71 When You Lose, You Win
In the 70’s sitcom Happy Days Fonzie was the guy every guy wanted to be. He wore a leather jacket, got all the girls, and rode a motorcycle. He was ‘the man’ and even he knew it. So when ‘The Fonz’ made a mistake, as he’d sometimes do, he’d find himself struggling to apologize to his buddy Richie Cunningham, played by Ron Howard. He was so cool he couldn’t bring himself to verbalize his regret. Finally, when there was no other option, he’d stammer through an apology, muscling through every word - ‘I was w-r-r-r ong’.
We can do better than the Fonz.
I was reminded of the Fonz in a meeting the other day. We were designing a mass email (ie. newsletter) feature. The team was debating a key step in the process, wondering if we should enable the user to send a test email or simply preview their message in the browser. I triumphantly voiced my opinion in support of the test email. The team didn’t agree. Now what?
When we don’t get our way, our childish personality emerges, wanting to get its way. As adults, we’ve learned to mute this temper tantrum, but we still feel a connection between our ideas and our identity. Any perceived challenge to our status becomes an existential threat, bubbling up from our primal lizard brain.
Back to our meeting on email. As more voices emerged on the side of the online preview, I felt the ‘need to win’ bubbling up inside. I managed to keep quiet this time, but the truth is, I give into that insecure feeling more than I’d like to admit. When I fail at this endeavor, I double down on my position, present more ‘evidence’, and steadily the volume rises. Every time I go down this path and escalate, I know it’s a mistake. Losing your cool, no matter how good your argument is, is losing.
If you have role power, you can get away with forcing your opinion on others. If you’re ever had an executive initiative foisted on your team, you know what I mean. But if you’re the leader, what do you get ruling by fiat? Yes, you get your way, for now, but you’ve won the battle and lost the war. Hands can be bought, but not hearts.
Every time you override your team’s decision, you are siphoning off a bit of their energy. You are telling the team that no matter what they come up with, you can grab the wheel at any time, changing where they’re headed. Of course, everyone knows that work is a hierarchy - that’s a reality of life in an organization, but it’s usually in the background. The hum of the break room refrigerator - it’s there, but you don’t notice it unless you pay attention. The moment you as a leader use position as a weapon in the war of ideas, you shine a light on hierarchy and harm the team in a very real way.
By eliminating their autonomy you get what you deserve, followers. A group that waits for you. A team that puts forth options rather than opinions. You’ll lament this fact later, wondering aloud ‘where are the fresh, innovating ideas?'. Not realizing that your micro-managing behavior created this culture of complacency.
“Finding people to tell what to do is easy. We hire people to tell us what to do.” - Steve Jobs
In essence, you’ve forged a team of waiters. A waiter waits. They bring the menu of choices -‘pick what you like’. We don’t want waiters on product teams - we want chefs. Our teams need to decide what goes on the menu - to consider the wine pairing, the dessert, and everything in between. To care about not only what is cooked, but how it is presented. These are the creative decisions a leader stifles every time they fail to muzzle the own hubris. The need to be right, as well as in charge, isn’t helping anyone.
Back to our email decision - guess what, I might be wrong. A preview may be the best decision. I don’t actually know that test email is better. We will find out when we ‘live on’ the product for a bit. Seeing something come to life answers a lot of questions. Is your ego worth hobbling your team?
Here’s the leadership lesson. More important than getting our way, is creating an environment where everyone can bring their best self to the work at hand. To create a culture where everyone is excited to bring their ideas and energy to work. Where each person can, and does, contribute.
Everyone needs to know they are making a difference - that their voice matters. They are working on something special, larger than themselves. As the leader, a big part of making this real is growing up and realizing you aren’t the star of the movie - you’re a member of the cast just like everyone else.
Let go of being right - when you lose, you win.