When Leaders Reduce Their Status, People Tell Them the Truth
Boston Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla is willing to get physically bruised to prove he wants an open forum of discussion and debate with his assistant coaches. To achieve more candid dialogue, he plays in high-contact pickup basketball games with his assistants throughout the season.
These raucous games between members of the coaching staff produce the teasing, camaraderie, and hard-nosed tactics commonly associated with pickup basketball. In addition to fun, the competition achieves something critically important for Mazzulla’s coaching success. It reduces the implicit status between him and his staff.
Coaches who get to foul, complain, and rib Mazzulla during the pickup games are more likely to engage, debate, and share their honest views with him during the season. Mazzulla knows something critical to team leadership. Any time a leader reduces or casts aside their status, they encourage more openness and honest feedback from those they lead.
The status of position, authority, and title can get in the way of great leadership. Team members are less likely to challenge or question the views of leaders who have the status to reward and punish them. While leaders can never completely shed their status, making less of it or demonstrating to others that they will not impose it works like oil to lubricate the willingness of team members to express their candid views.
Any time a leader levels the playing field by reducing their status, they essentially ask others to engage them in critical discussions as they would peers. Because status can never be completely erased, team members typically don’t cross lines and treat a leader inappropriately. Instead, they engage in more collegial ways any time the leader asks them to.
Leaders who push status aside get more honest answers to their questions and more candid ideas in discussions. This makes for a powerfully collaborative environment where the team’s collective skills can shine and quality decisions can be made quickly.
Minimizing leadership status creates a different conversation between leaders and team members, one that is more spontaneous, outspoken, and safe. No wonder the best leaders do everything they can to lead with influence, not authority.