A manager who regularly steps in to solve a problem for an employee may think that he or she is helping. In fact, this well-intentioned manager is actually limiting – and hurting – the employee. The effective manager enables employees to utilize the full depth and range of their intellect and capabilities. In this article, readers will learn how managers can do that.

Gregory Pal was proud of having hired Michael, a talented individual with rich foreign trade experience gained as an employee of the Brazilian embassy. Gregory wanted him to be able to make a genuine contribution to the renewable energy company’s efforts to expand rapidly into Brazil. But in an effort to help Michael, Gregory would often jump in to solve problems. Because he was still new, Gregory gave him easy assignments and piecemeal tasks that were routine and not suited for someone with highly developed skills, like Michael. Then, because Michael was the only team member working remotely, Gregory would often end up representing him in meetings that he couldn’t attend. After a few months, it was determined that Michael was using just 20 to 25 percent of his talent on the job.

Diminishers vs. Multipliers

Michael’s case is hardly an isolated one. In fact, it illustrates an all-too-common workplace phenomenon, leadership poorly exercised. To understand the phenomenon, just ask yourself these two questions: Have you ever worked for a leader who underutilized your talent or who made you question your own intelligence? Or, have you ever worked for a leader who drew on every ounce of your brainpower and even made you smarter and more capable? We call the first type of leader a Diminisher and the second type a Multiplier.

After studying 150 leaders in 35 companies across 4 continents, our research suggests that most managers under-estimate how widely employees’ talent is under-utilized. One reason for this is that employees tend not to volunteer that they are being underutilized. Another reason, we found, is that managers can apply well-intentioned, popular management practices with regularity, yet still fail to spark workers to expend a significant amount of discretionary effort.

Our basic research question was, “What are the vital few differences between intelligence Diminishers and intelligence Multipliers, and what impact do they have on organizations?”

So what did we find? We found that Diminishers and Multipliers do many things alike. For example, they are both customer focused, have good business acumen, and consider themselves thought leaders. But, we learned that they see the world through very different eyes and that they do a small number of things very differently.

Diminishers tend to assume that “people will never figure this out without me.” As a result, they tend to tell others what to do, make decisions themselves, create pressure, and micromanage the details to ensure performance—all the while underutilizing the talent that they’ve brought into the organization.

On the other hand, Multipliers believe “people are smart enough to figure it out.” Because of this they look for valuable talent in others, give people space to think, and instill accountability, which commands people’s best work. As well, they ask the challenging questions that unlock thinking and generate possibilities.

Two surprises

2X Multiplier Effect. When we began our research, we expected that Multipliers would get more from their people. However, our first surprise was just how much more they actually received. Multipliers don’t just get a little more—they get vastly more. In terms of impact, we found that across companies and industries, Multipliers accessed employees’ capabilities 1.97 times than Diminishers, almost twice as much. In other words, leaders who are Multipliers essentially double the intellectual power of their workforce for free. Imagine what your organization would be like if everyone led like a Multiplier and succeeded in getting the team to apply the full range of its intelligence and depth of capabilities to solving problems? The problem, however, is that most leaders think they are getting more from their people than they really are.

Diminishing Unawares. A second surprise was the discovery that many leaders were simply unaware of how management practices they thought to be empowering were actually limiting or restricting employees from using the intelligence they had. Their intent was quite different than their impact. Many of these same leaders had been promoted into management after being frequently praised for being intellectually adept. Thus, they assumed that they had or were supposed to have all the answers. Others had worked for Diminishers or in diminishing cultures for so long that they had become accustomed to such thinking. Many of these leaders were like the one high-tech Director who said, “I have the heart and mind of a Multiplier, but I’ve lost my way.”

The Accidental Diminisher

Intentional or not, the effect of a Diminisher on team members was the same: people were unable to enlist their full brainpower to the challenges at hand. Perhaps you are a Diminisher, and even worse, perhaps you aren’t aware that you are one. Here are five signs that you might be accidentally diminishing your people.

  1. You want more people to report to you. You think you know how to get more out of people than your peers, so you look for opportunities to bring new functions and additional resources into your organization. You tell yourself it is a win-win: People will do better under your leadership and it gives you a more senior management role as well. You tend to be reluctant to let resources be taken from your organization because it is hard to back-fill and train new people. One senior director routinely came up with plans to have other departments report to him. He genuinely believed he was doing these departments a favor. His attitude was “the only thing wrong with these groups is that they don’t report to me.” If you find yourself doing (or thinking) something similar you might be accidentally diminishing people. For a start, you may be so busy building a little empire that you overlook the job of building your people’s careers. Over time, hoarding resources can become a lose-lose: you limit the growth of your people and you develop a reputation as a career killer. Instead of being “the boss to work for” your organization becomes a “place where people come to die.”
  2. You’ve got the gift of the gab. You are passionate and articulate and can take up a lot of space in a meeting. You like to think out loud. And because you like to keep up on things, you are always bursting with ideas. After one general manager of a $250M division held an offsite meeting with his staff, a member of his team came to him with a concern. He said, “You are sucking all the oxygen out of the room. There is no room for the rest of us.” The enthusiasm he thought was infectious was actually taking up too much space and stifling the thinking of others.
  3. You’re a visionary. You like to think of yourself as a big thinker, someone who can see the strategic issues, paint a compelling picture of the future and evangelize it to those around you. Yet, in an attempt to inspire others, you may actually be overwhelming them. Your drive can be draining. Of course, that is not your intention. After all, you have heard ad infinitum that a leader needs to have a vision. But being a visionary is not the same as creating a vision. Consider the impact of a new VP at a consumer electronics company, who was hired to drive growth in an important emerging market. He laid out a bold vision for the business in his region. But instead of igniting his team’s enthusiasm, he only dampened it and people became apathetic. One key member of his team put it this way, “There was such a huge gap between what he is telling us to do and what we actually can do, we just give up. We have no idea how we can make his vision a reality.”
  4. You’re a rapid responder. You react quickly and decisively. When there are problems or opportunities, you see your job as one of needing to make the rapid decisions that will keep the organization moving ahead. One senior vice president responsible for the data centers of a major software as a service company has taken this approach for years. He explained that when the systems are down nothing matters but getting them up. It is a moment for him to be decisive. He said that when he occasionally asks for input at these high stake moments he just gets silence. Yet the silence may well be one of the unintended consequences of being a rapid responder. He has made so many of these decisions for his people that the responsibility for thinking has come to rest largely or entirely with him. The end result is that instead of engaging their intelligence on the issues at hand, the vice-president’s behaviour has only conditioned employees to wait for him to make the decisions.
  5. You jump in to rescue people. Perhaps you see your people failing and jump in to rescue them or the project. You might be comfortable with delegating in the first place, but in a desire to help you end up stepping back in to redo work. But what is the full impact of stepping in to rescue someone? In the moment, such jumping in seems to help. But it can actually diminish people’s capability. It weakens their ability to think for themselves and to learn how to spot problems and recover from them. Instead of creating a cycle of success, it can actually damage someone’s ability and reputation. Perhaps this is why one employee said to his well-intentioned, rescuing manager, “What I need right now is a little less help!”

If one or more of these signals resonate with you, there is a good chance that you might be having a limiting effect on the people around you. It is also likely that your people have more intelligence than they are currently calling on to do their work.

From Accidental Diminisher to Aspiring Multiplier

If becoming an Accidental Diminisher is, by definition, unintentional, it is reasonable to ask how someone can change course and begin operating more like a Multiplier? Here are three simple but powerful starting points:

  1. Shift from giving answers to asking questions. The best leaders don’t provide all the answers, they ask the right questions. Use your knowledge of the business or a situation to ask insightful and challenging questions that cause people to stop, think, and rethink. Instead of continually selling your vision, ask the questions that get other people thinking and piecing that vision together themselves.
  2. Dispense your ideas in small doses. If you are an idea guy who is prone to tossing out more ideas than anyone can catch, you have “the gift of gab.” Try articulating your ideas in increments. Introduce fewer ideas and leave white space. Providing more distance between your ideas has a powerful dual effect: First, it creates room for others to contribute, and second, your words will be heard more frequently and will be more influential.
  3. Expect complete work. People learn best when they are fully accountable and face the consequences of their work. Instead of jumping in and fixing the work of others, give it back and let people know what needs to be improved or completed. And ask people to go beyond pointing out problems. Ask them to find a solution. By wrestling with it themselves, they’ll grow their capability and be able to operate more independently next time.

Another powerful way to begin to make the shift to Multiplier leadership is to start with your assumptions. How would you manage if you held the assumption that people are smart and will figure it out? This idea proved critical in helping Gregory Pal access more of the capability in his new hire, Michael.

Gregory Pal Revisited

After learning about the findings from the Multipliers research, Gregory could see more clearly the unintended impact that his management style was having on Michael. He responded to the challenge by measurably increasing the opportunities for Michael to utilize his intelligence. He started by making a few simple changes. He gave Michael full ownership of the job of capturing their Brazilian partnership strategy on paper for a critical board meeting. He then integrated Michael virtually into company-wide meetings so his ideas could be heard.

Yet the real gain, according to Gregory, came from a slight change in perspective. Once he started looking at the people around him through the lens of a Multiplier, Gregory said that the opportunities started presenting themselves. Instead of feeling frustrated at having to step in and redo work, he found ways to help other people take their thinking to the next level. He could take charge without taking over. He began to do things differently because he began to see his role differently.

Within just a couple of weeks, Michael was utilizing 80 percent of his intelligence . That represented a threefold utilization gain, and without additional investment. In an economic climate characterized by increased demands and insufficient resources, such gains in resource utilization are significant for even the most hardened CFO.

From resource allocation to resource utilization

Companies are finding that intelligence might be their most underutilized asset. This is especially relevant today, when many organizations have cut resources and are left with fewer people but the same workload.

Business school professors and strategy gurus Gary Hamel and the late C.K. Prahalad (an advisor on this research) have written, “The resource allocation task of top management has received too much attention when compared to the task of resource leverage. . . . If top management devotes more effort to assessing the strategic feasibility of projects in its allocation role than it does to the task of multiplying resource effectiveness, its value-added will be modest indeed.”

Instead of waiting for conditions to improve and hoping for more head count, smart leaders might find that the brainpower needed to solve their most pressing challenges is sitting right in front of them, latent but accessible. Organizations need leaders who can spot the ways that they might be inadvertently diminishing others and become Multipliers, who fully utilize and amplify the intelligence and capability of the people around them.

The Five Multiplier Disciplines

In isolating the practices that truly differentiate Diminishers and Multipliers, we found that:

  1. Multipliers are talent magnets: They look beyond their own capabilities to see the deep capabilities —or genius—of others. And then they utilize people so that they can make the greatest contribution that they can.
  2. Multipliers are liberators: They strip the stress and fear from their organization and create an intense environment that requires people’s best thinking and work. They keep the pressure on but make it safe to make mistakes. The result is a climate that is intense without being tense.
  3. Multipliers are challengers: Instead of telling people what to do, they show them what they can do. They seed opportunities and let people discover needs for themselves. Then, they lay down challenges that cause people to stretch their capabilities.
  4. Multipliers are debate makers: Instead of making decisions themselves and that leave others in the dark, they engage people in discussing high-stakes decisions up front. This leads to decisions that people understand and can execute efficiently.
  5. Multipliers are investors: Instead of micromanaging, they give other people ownership of the results and invest in their capability and success.

About the Author

Liz Wiseman is president of The Wiseman Group, a leadership research and development firm.

About the Author



Greg McKeown is a partner at The Wiseman Group. This article is adapted from their book Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make….
Read Greg McKeown's full bio

About the Author

Liz Wiseman is president of The Wiseman Group, a leadership research and development firm.

About the Author

Liz Wiseman is president of The Wiseman Group, a leadership research and development firm.

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